Travel Russia – Guest travel blog by my dear ‘Fraunty’, Dr S.
Hi readers. Dr S here.. I’m writing a guest travel blog about spending 7 days in Russia in September last year – better late than never – to contribute to my friend’s over 40’s travel blog. Apologies in advance but my musings usually contain a lot of pictures of buildings, sorry, but it’s my thing.
I’m not a gourmet foodie, so I’m not qualified to report on that. As long as I can get something to eat, I’m happy.
Guess what?! You can get beer in McDonalds!
And even coffee guys look interesting when you’re in another country.
I should also qualify my Russia guest travel blog with the disclaimer that I only spent a week in Russia and what can you really know about a country if you’re only there for a week? Just what you see in that time frame is all.
Anyhow, we flew from Lyon in France, to Moscow, with Aeroflot. The usual advice is “don’t fly Aeroflot”, but that’s just a hangover from a past bad reputation. These days Aeroflot has a whole bunch of new planes and is as reliable as any other.
We spent our 7 days in Russia about five months after Moscow hosted the World Cup of football, and so the locals were fairly used to tourists by that time.
Mainly Aussies and Poms (Brits) and mostly really drunk tourists as far as I can tell, fortunately they didn’t hold that against us.
How to describe Moscow?
If you asked me for one word to describe Moscow, that word would be BIG.
Everything is enormous, not just the tourist hotspots like the Kremlin, but even including footpaths that are so wide that about 50 people could stand side-by-side, shoulder to shoulder. This is a typical Moscow building in the old section of town, with a person in the shot to give an idea of scale.
The main road that runs through Moscow has 14 lanes, 7 on one side and 7 on the other. If you’ve ever tried to cross 14 lanes of traffic, don’t. Thankfully they have underpasses everywhere as that’s the only way to get across such huge roads. The Kremlin (below) is ginormous.
All BIG things have to be cleaned sometime, and so Moscow also has the World’s Largest Street-Cleaning Fleet to clean their huge streets – see following picture.
Red Square is humungous. Moscow has seven similar buildings that look suspiciously American, in the style of the Empire State, spread all over the city and known as the 7 Sisters – and they too are monumentally huge. Seven is of course so much more impressive than just one. Naturally, huge buildings need huge entry canopies.
The university is huge, and guarded by the statue of some angry dude ….
Subway (no, not food)
… and the subway is both incredibly ornate and you guessed it – huge.
There’s lots of heart-warming propaganda in the underground train stations – lots of statues, mosaics and paintings of happy peasant folk with lots of wheat, showing how well fed and happy everyone was back in the days when the central Government was in charge of everything. Bit like the way we’re heading now in Australia (end of political commentary).
The subways are fortified so they can double as bomb shelters, and the university has underground bunkers as well – turns out they thought the Americans would drop a bomb on them, while we Westerners were raised to think it would go the other way. Who knew?!
Even the portable toilets look like they’d withstand nuclear fallout.
Anyway, you get the idea. We spent 7 days in Russia to discover that Moscow is really big.
I think all travellers would agree that it’s the little oddball, spontaneous things that you remember and hold dear. Like, of course I remember the Eiffel Tower, but … once we got lost in the back streets of Paris, and we accidentally ended up being the only two members of an audience when we stopped in a dead-end street to listen to a young girl playing her violin in her own home, with the shutters open due to a heat wave. We stood there and listened to the magic, until she noticed us listening and stopped. Tower schmower – it’s those joyous little surprises that you never forget.
Moscow – Military Tattoo
During our week in Russia, Moscow gave us a lovely surprise, albeit a big one because they only do big there. We trooped out to see the onion dome church thing at night, St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, and to my inner photographer’s dismay, it was dark and unlit. Disappointed, we trudged home.
Found out the next day that the Cathedral was in darkness because there was an event being held on the other (Kremlin) side, and it was – omfg – a Military Tattoo in the land of the military!! We hunted high and low for tickets, at 2pm the booth said they were sold out, then a kind local explained that any spare tickets would be re-allocated to all the booths at around 5pm, and so we returned and were lucky enough to get 2 tickets just in time to get there.
I can’t fully express what a total BUZZ it was to see a Military Tattoo in Red Square in Moscow, a place that’s fairly keen on all things military. They had invited entrants from all over the world, so not only did we see all the incredibly proud local army & navy types, but we also saw army bands from all kinds of obscure places – Mexico, Ireland, Sri Lanka – all of which were amazing.
The roar that went up when any of the Russian military came out to play was deafening, and chock-full of national pride. Some of the Russian musos were hilarious, earnest young Russian military boys gettin’ down and funky for the crowd and generally not taking themselves too seriously. (Taking the piss as we say in ‘Oz – so they do have a sense of yuma!).
There were bands from Mexico, Sri Lanka, Ireland, and so on, you name it they were there.
The ones that took the cake as far as we were concerned were the Dutch – they not only played their musical instruments while at the same time riding their specially modified bicycles (the Dutch do love a good bicycle), but they rode said bikes on the extremely rough cobblestoned Red Square surface – and, aiming for a degree of difficulty of 11.5, they did all this in national dress including wooden clogs.
Ever tried to ride a bike in wooden clogs? Unfreakinbelievable. After the concert, they hung out in the carpark, playing more music and signing autographs like rock stars. Full marks to the Dutch crew.
Conclusion on Moscow
7 days in this Russian location was mind-blowing. The Military Tattoo was held in Red Square with St Basil’s onion-dome Cathedral and the Kremlin’s Spassky Tower in the background, both lit with an ever-changing array of colours, and of course fireworks at the end, while the moon popped up as well (it was, of course, big).
One of those shake-your-head-am-I-really-here moments that absolutely thrilled us during our week in Russia. What a SHOW! It was a night I’ll never forget and totally unplanned, we were just dead lucky. Which makes it doubly grouse.
We didn’t have time to get out into the countryside which is where I believe you get to see the darker side of Russia – i.e. poverty, and zero amenities, poor food, no medical assistance, etc. We instead caught the train to St Petersburg, a pleasant 4 hour train ride. Along the way, you catch glimpses of how people outside of Moscow live, with apartment blocks cuddling right up to power stations.
And we saw some ripper vehicles during our 7 days in Russia.
St Petersburg – Don’t believe the hype
You know how when every one you know tells you to go see a movie because it’s great, fantastic, amazing, life-changing and all that? St Petersburg suffered just like that, from too many superlatives. It is a place consisting of 30 or so islands, a whole lot of rivers and canals in between, and as a result, their biggest claim to fame (Hermitage Museum aside) are the bridges that rise up at around 1am to let ships and barges in and out.
Don’t get me wrong, they are worth seeing, because up go the bridges, along with the light poles, tram lines, electricity wires and the lot, so it’s all fairly clever, but otherwise St Petersburg didn’t really do it for me. People call it ‘The Venice of the North’ because it’s allegedly so beautiful, but being so close to sea level, it’s a very flat landscape, which is very boring for photography enthusiasts.
St Petersburg Architecture
There’s some nice architecture and for that reason people have been known to compare it to Paris; there’s lots of gold leaf everywhere, plus Peterhof is St Petersburg’s (naturally bigger) answer to the palace at Versailles, but I just didn’t find it special.
It does have the other onion dome thing – the very seriously-named Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood – which has something like 35,000 square metres of tiling, again with the huge theme. Sort of like penis envy really. “My palace is bigger than yours.” “My church has more tiles than yours.”
Australians can be equally proud of what we have that’s big, with the Big Prawn, the Big Pineapple, and of course, all our Greats – the Barrier Reef, the Australian Bight, Great Ocean Road, the Sandy Desert and so on. But I digress.
With Moscow so HUGE and St Petersburg so flat with a handful of big things, you have to give serious thought to what camera lenses will work for that week in Russia. (Ed: should have sought advice from photo guru; Ali)
Accommodation – St Petersburg
Not sure if I’m allowed to give plugs, but a big shout-out to the people at the Hotel Rossi, all of whom were absolutely sensational. All the concierges got involved with our taxi hassles and any other requests for assistance.
The door guy was awesome in giving us suggestions for each day out (and how to get back), the rooms are lovely, it is well located near the main drag, and they have an in-house spa for massaging sore travel-ravaged bodies. Also, their lift, pictured below, tells you what day it is, which is bloody helpful when you’re on holiday.
Yes, I mentioned taxi hassles.
When you spend 7 days in Russia, you can’t help but learn the hard way about getting around via taxi.
The taxi industry in Russia is a huge racket allegedly run by the Mafia. They tout at the airports for your business.
You will see guys wearing a Taxi sign around their neck; they offer a quote for your trip, if you accept or even hesitate, they take your bags and start walking so you have no option but to follow, and then they put you in an unmarked domestic car with a driver from another country who already has your bags locked securely in the boot by the time you catch up. At that point, anybody could be taking you anywhere and charging anything, and it’s pretty scary.
Taxis cost how much?
The charges range wildly – we paid 250 roubles for a cab to the Hermitage from our hotel, because the hotel booked it, and were charged 1500 roubles for the same trip back (not booked by the hotel). Even if you ask them to quote you a price before getting in the cab, they can and will often increase the price at random as you go along, so you just can’t win, and it actually became a bit of a downer the longer we stayed.
It’s a real headfxxx, the only consolation being that when you convert it back to AUD in your head, it’s not a lot of money in real terms.
Shout-out also to all the various tour guides we had to show us around during our quick 7 days in Russia – they are very open and will tell you all about themselves, what they earn, how they live, what their politics are, what the history is, and so on – a fantastic source of real-life information, and just something we prefer compared to looking at dusty old things in museums (but to each his own).
In the end, we’d have been happier to have used the 3 days (out of the week in Russia) we spent in St Petersburg to have stayed longer in Moscow. But hey, they’re the things you learn only when you get out there.
Me, I used to be so scared of flying I would only go where I could get to by bus or train (i.e. inside Australia), so I’m just plain ecstatic to be anywhere else.
What experiences have you had in Russia that you can share with us? Is this a good Solo female traveller destination? Please comment below..
Want to learn more about solo female travel for over 40’s? Try here.