Posted in Russia

до свидания!

Our last day in Russia was fairly low key. We’d managed to wear ourselves out walking every day. Our son hadn’t napped since we’d arrived and had stopped sleeping through the night. We were all coming down with colds. Our original plan had been to go ice skating in Gorky Park before catching our 9pm flight back to London, but the park suddenly seemed like a long way away and skating physically ambitious. And it was cold and windy and raining here and there.

So instead we opted to do some last-minute souvenir shopping on Arbat Street, or “The Arbat”, which was only a couple blocks from the hotel.  According to Wikipedia, it “is a pedestrian street about one kilometer long in the historical centre of Moscow. The Arbat has existed since at least the 15th century, thus laying claim to being one of the oldest surviving streets of the Russian capital. It forms the heart of the Arbat District of Moscow. Originally the street formed part of an important trade route and was home to a large number of craftsmen.

“In the 18th century, the Arbat came to be regarded by the Russian nobility as the most prestigious living area in Moscow. The street was almost completely destroyed by the great fire during Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow in 1812 and had to be rebuilt. In the 19th and early 20th centuries it became known as a place where petty nobility, artists, and academics lived. In the Soviet period, it was the home of many high-ranking government officials.

“Today the street and its surroundings are undergoing gentrification, and it is considered a desirable place to live. Because of the many historic buildings, and the numerous artists who have lived and worked in the street, the Arbat is also an important tourist attraction.”

Arbat Street sign.
Arbat Street sign.
A view down part of the street with one of the Seven Sisters, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the background.
A view down part of the street with one of the Seven Sisters, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the background.
Beautiful Russian cityscape art that I was tempted to buy but the seller had disappeared.
Beautiful Russian cityscape art that I was tempted to buy, but the seller had disappeared.

So we wandered down the street and through the shops and picked up a toy Russian ambulance and police car for the kiddo, a Yuri Gagarin fridge magnet, a St. Basil’s snow globe, a St. Basil’s rotating music box, a set of painted lacquer coasters, and my hubby picked up a leather cap with a toasty wool lining. Our son got his picture taken with one of the two Mickey Mouse characters randomly roaming the street in front of Johnny Rockets. And we stopped in for a snack at Wendy’s.

After that we packed up the hotel room and checked out. Since we had to check out several hours early or pay and additional fee, we were suddenly happy that we’d picked up the toy cars for our son since we had to sit in the lobby until 6:00 to wait for the taxi.

When he finally arrived, we drove the last leg of our journey out to the airport. I’d never been to Domodedovo before, obviously, and was a little concerned when I asked our driver to drop us near the Transaero terminal, and he apparently had no idea what I was saying.

Turned out all the airlines were huddled into one building and after being directed to four different desks, we finally found the queue for our flight that was being operated by Easy Jet…even though that was not mentioned anywhere in our flight confirmation. Eventually we made it onto the flight and after watching them de-ice the wings, we were back in the air, our Russian adventure behind us.

Posted in Russia

Red Square!

The next morning we strolled down to one of the two restaurants in the hotel for the breakfast buffet. We’d learned the hard way in St. Petersburg that trying to order anything else off the menu for breakfast was pointless and potentially disappointing. Since then we’d stuck with the overpriced buffet and were happy that at least they didn’t charge for the three-year-old. I immediately noticed there was no champagne at this buffet…strike one for Moscow!

After getting all bundled up, we set off for the biggest tourist attraction in Russia…Red Square! The only thing between our hotel and Red Square was the Kremlin, so we walked along the wall and entertained the thought of going inside for a tour. I hadn’t wanted to prebook one as I didn’t want to commit to a time a few days into our journey too far in advance, and I’m glad we didn’t. Red Square took most of the day as it was, and we were starting to wear down…and get sick with colds. But the ticket line looked to be about an hour long. So booking ahead would’ve been a good idea if we’d wanted to go in.

The outside of the Kremlin wall is interesting in itself. There’s the Alexander Garden, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (which has a changing of the guard every hour), and…”to the right of the tomb, lining the walkway are dark red porphyry blocks with encapsulated soils from hero cities, Leningrad, Kiev, Stalingrad, Odessa, Sevastopol, Minsk, Kerch, Novorossiysk, Tula and Brest, Murmansk and Smolensk. Further to the right of these monuments is an obelisk in red granite, listing the names of 40 ‘Cities of Military Glory’ divided into groups of four.” (Wikipedia)

Outside the Kremlin wall.
Outside the Kremlin wall.
Memorial to the heroic city of Odessa.
Memorial to the heroic city of Odessa.

Just within site of the security entrance to Red Square we encountered a delay. Our son announced that he had to go to the bathroom, and we came across a few appealing souvenir kiosks that required more cash than we had. So we crossed the busy Mokhovaya Street via the underground walkway and crashed the Ritz-Carlton hotel. After using their shiny toilets and topping up on cash at a safe and reputable ATM, I was politely admonished by a security guard for taking pictures of the gingerbread house in the lobby. At least he didn’t confiscate my camera.

The lobby of the Ritz-Carlton with gingerbread house.
The lobby of the Ritz-Carlton with gingerbread house.

Then it was back to Red Square! We picked up a couple of fox fur hats from the kiosk (apologies to the animal-friendly folks out there) and soon had people asking us for directions in Russian…so they must’ve looked somewhat authentic. And Red Square was fantastic…although I was a bit surprised by the metal detectors they were funnelling people through…for some reason I thought it was much more of an open-access area.

But once we were inside we walked freely around the square, went inside St. Basil’s Cathedral, around the small Christmas market, and popped into GUM…the famous Soviet state department store that’s now an elegant, ornate and ridiculously expensive shopping mall. We also lied blatantly to our sweet son, which we try not to do, who wanted to ride on the lovely double-decker carousel, but the line was so long for tickets that we told him it was closed. (But we have promised to take him on another carousel in London, so do not fear that he is entirely neglected.) He took it well.

GUM all dressed up for Christmas...with part of the ticket line to the carousel in front.
GUM all dressed up for Christmas…with part of the ticket line to the carousel in front.

St. Basil’s was very different inside than I was expecting. Where most cathedrals have a large open space in the center, this one was just a honeycomb of brightly-colored little rooms and chambers. We also happened upon a group of men singing Russian hymns in the small central hall, and the acoustics were so impressive that we picked up one of their CDs. They’re called “Doros” if you’d like to look them up on YouTube.

Red Square!
Red Square!
View of Red Square from inside St. Basil's Cathedral.
View of Red Square from inside St. Basil’s Cathedral.
One of the eight smaller chambers in St. Basil’s.
Interior wall detail.
Interior wall detail.

With tummies rumbling we finished our big day out in Moscow and started walking back toward the hotel. We weren’t crazy enough to try to squeeze into the McDonald’s outside the Kremlin, but we had passed a sign for one closer to the hotel. So we pushed our way into still the busiest McDonald’s that I have ever been in and took the only opportunity I dared the entire trip to try and speak Russian…which consisted of reading the English-sounding words written in Cyrillic off the menu in a Russian accent. Happily, the Russian girl next to me was amused and eavesdropping and quickly translated the word for motorcycle when asked which toy our son wanted in his happy meal. 🙂

Posted in Russia

Made It to Moscow

After our one full day in St. Petersburg, we had about half of the next day left before our scheduled train to Moscow. The only thing that I’d scheduled for us in the morning was a little tour of the historic 1916 Krasin icebreaker. It didn’t look that far away on the Google map, but we later found out that Google had pegged the wrong address. So we walked a hurried two miles, my husband carrying our son the whole time, and made it just in time for our own personal English tour of the ship.

There happened to be two other icebreakers in town at the time, but the Krasin is officially a museum, and I thought our son would like it. Turns out, he had no patience for the information our guide was trying to impart, but he was happy to try and run all over the ship. We still managed to see some neat things like a model of the Fram, Roald Amundsen’s ship that he took to the Antarctic when he won the race to the South Pole, a large stuffed polar bear, the communications room where we all got to try our hand at tapping out Morse code. Our guide even let our son ring the ship’s bell on the bow.

The Krasin icebreaker.
The Krasin icebreaker.
A bit of Morse code.
A bit of Morse code.

At the end of the tour I asked our guide if he had been in the Russian navy. He said, no, that he had actually been on a research vessel for 30 years. Even more interesting! For a bit more of the ship’s history and some visitor info, check out this great St. Petersburg tourist site.

After the tour we packed up the hotel room and took a taxi to the Moskovsky train station. We arrived early for our 3:00 Sapsan high-speed train but didn’t see too much in the way of snack places, so we hopped on the train and hoped there’d be some kind of dining car. It turned out that a three-course meal and drinks were included in the price of the ticket! So we sat comfortably in our leather seats and tried to keep our son entertained while the Russian countryside, which looked disappointingly like Oregon without a hint of Dr. Zhivago, flew by, and we snacked on bread, cheese, fruit, potatoes, and beef in tomato sauce followed by fruit tarts and chocolate cake. I decided to follow the lead of the Russians sitting around me and had a Russian Standard brand vodka and tomato juice.

The Sapsan high-speed train to Moscow.
The Sapsan high-speed train to Moscow.
Russian Standard vodka and tomato juice.
Russian Standard vodka and tomato juice.

We had booked an English-speaking taxi through a recommended website called Welcome Taxi. It was very easy to book online, and it was great to have someone waiting to meet us as we literally stepped off the train. From there, we checked into the Courtyard Marriott City Centre hotel, which was only a few blocks from Red Square and had a similar set up as the last hotel (additional baby bed, view over indoor courtyard, breakfast buffet) but with a slightly more abrupt staff.

The train ride was about four hours, so it was close to 8:30pm by the time we got settled in our room. Again, room service was the diners’ choice, so we had some burgers and fries sent up and called it a night. I know it’s not very adventurous, but they actually didn’t have anything particularly Russian on the menu.

Posted in Russia

Sights of St. Petersburg

Our British Airways flight from Heathrow to Pulkovo International in St. Petersburg was a pleasantly short three hours. Our three-year-old son had graciously given up the window seat for once, and I felt my first real twinge of excitement as we hovered above the clouds and then began our descent into Russia.

That twinge faded pretty quickly as my Baroque vision of St. Petersburg was replaced immediately by the massive maze of gray Soviet-style apartment buildings that stretched as far as I could see interspersed with smoking stacks and the odd nuclear reactor tower. The airport was also smoky and dingy and poorly lit. It was almost like walking onto a Cold War movie set. Follow that up with the fact that we waited for an hour for our ride from the hotel…because “flights never get in early from London, they’re always late”…and my expectations were dropping by the minute.

But we did manage to resurrect them. We stayed at the Renaissance Baltic Hotel, which was half a block away from St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Mariinksy Palace. We took an evening stroll among the outdoor Christmas lights after checking in to get our bearings and then returned to the hotel and ordered room service…a luxury that we afforded ourselves on more than one evening as it was the easiest thing to do with a tired preschooler.

The next day was our only full day in St. Petersburg, and I’d planned it out fairly carefully so that we’d be able to see the things we wanted. But it totally fell apart, as all well-laid plans do. We were an hour late getting out of the hotel after breakfast, and our first big outing was going to be to the Winter Palace, home of the Russian Tsars. Admission was a mere $17 USD and little ones were free. But we had been informed that it was free entry on the first Thursday of the month, which this day happened to be.

So after a leisurely stroll along the Neva River with a little playing in the snow (yay! a morning dusting!), we came to the Palace Square…and spent the next two and a half hours standing in line with the rest of the Russians that had shown up for free entry. Happily we had purchased thermal underwear before we left, so it wasn’t completely miserable. But it was 28 degrees, and by the last half hour even the Russians were starting to huddle together and jump up and down in the cold.

The visible portion of the line outside the Winter Palace...the other half of it stretched across the inside courtyard.
The visible portion of the line outside the Winter Palace…the other half of it stretched across the inner courtyard.

Our son did surprisingly well. Other than insisting that his daddy carry him all over the country, he didn’t fuss much, and he was content to view the world from the comfort of Daddy’s arms, napping occasionally on his shoulder.

And of course the Winter Palace was fantastic. After another 30 minutes waiting for the mandatory coat check, we finally got to wander the palace. It truly is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen in my life. My favorite parts of the building were the Jacob Staircase, the Red Room and the Portrait Gallery. Of course, we only spent an hour in the palace, and you really could spend days walking up and down the halls.

The Jacob Staircase inside the Winter Palace.
The Jacob Staircase inside the Winter Palace.

By this time my husband’s blood sugar was totally crashing, so we headed straight toward the café where I’d planned for us to eat lunch. It’s a gorgeous little place called the Café Singer inside the old Art Nouveau Singer sewing building. We had a short wait, and two overly-done-up girls in their 20s tried to edge in front of us, but we politely shot them down and ended up with a great table by the window with a view of the Kazan Cathedral. And the food was very tasty. My hubby had stuffed cabbage, our son even snacked on a few meat-filled dumplings, and I ordered the salmon tartar with cream cheese in a blini with red caviar.

View of the Kazan Cathedral from Cafe Singer.
View of the Kazan Cathedral from Cafe Singer.

And I was really looking forward to the caviar. I’d ordered the house special Eggs Benedict at the hotel that was supposed to have caviar, but it arrived without it…and there was none on the breakfast buffet like the hotel pictures showed. So I was happy to finally get my Russian caviar.

Salmon tartar and cream cheese in a blini with red caviar.
Salmon tartar and cream cheese in a blini with red caviar.

I did have one little meltdown around this time when it took the waitress 45 minutes after our meal was over to bring my hubby the cup of coffee that he’d ordered. It was now after 5:00, and we had a dinner reservation at 6:30pm at one of the best steakhouses in town that even had a children’s room. Obviously we weren’t going to make it…and wouldn’t have been hungry if we had. But I didn’t want to leave them hanging. We weren’t able to get internet or any kind of phone reception on our cell, so I felt really badly when we finally got back to the hotel and the concierge informed us that they’d been holding our table for over an hour.

But once I finally accepted the fact that there was nothing we could do about it, we managed to salvage the rest of the night. We walked along Nevksy Prospekt and the Griboyedova Canal to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, so called because it was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II had been assassinated. And the cathedral is just gorgeous. Modeled after St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, its onion domes were all done in blue and white and gold. Unfortunately it was closed the week that we were there, so we didn’t get to go inside. Maybe next time.

The top of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.
The top of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.

From there we peeked through the souvenir market across the street before opting for a horse-drawn carriage ride back to the hotel. Technically they didn’t go all the way to our hotel, but they went to the Winter Palace, which was close enough. Plus this day was my birthday, so it was fun to splurge…and it saved my hubby from having to carry our son an extra two miles.

Needless to say, we didn’t really bother with dinner that night…just snacked on chips and sandwiches and fruit in the room. But my hubby did order a couple slices of chocolate cake and two glasses of champagne from room service, which was a perfect end to a very special birthday.

Happy Birthday to me!
Happy Birthday to me!
Posted in England, Russia

Planning a Trip to Russia

After living in Alaska for much of my childhood, with Russian culture so close by, I’ve wanted to go to that country since I was in high school. Our town was the capitol city when Alaska was a Russian territory, so we still had an historic Russian cemetery and a Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian governor’s house was still a tourist attraction, and we had a restaurant that served borscht and a couple stores that sold Russian souvenirs. When I was a kid I had books full of colorful Russian fairy tales in English and matrushka dolls mixed in with my other toys. So imagine how excited I was to finally be able to plan our first big trip from London…to Russia!

St. Michael's Cathedral, Sitka, Alaska
St. Michael’s Cathedral, Sitka, Alaska.

There are two ways that you can get to Russia as a tourist…go with an organized tour or go independently. I looked at a couple of tours but didn’t find anything that really fit what we were looking for…plus we would be traveling with a three-year-old, which requires a bit of flexibility. If you do decide to go independently, I’d like to point out that there are two main things that differ from your average travel around Europe.

RUSSIAN TOURIST VISAS

The first one is visas. If you are an American and plan on visiting Russia, you will need a tourist visit. If you are going through Russia on your way to somewhere else and will be in the country for less than 72 hours, you will need a transit visa. The only time that you do not need a visa is if you are on a cruise ship, come into town with a registered group and return to the ship at night.

Sample Russian tourist visa.
Sample Russian tourist visa.

I am happy to say that I had no problems at all getting our tourist visas. I simply went through the website for Russian visas services called VFS Global, filled out the (extensive!) applications online, printed them, signed them and mailed them along with our tourist passports to the Russian Visa Center in London. They then send them on to the Russian Embassy for processing and then return them to you by mail. We had them back less than two weeks after I’d put them in the mail. A friend of mine that was also planning a trip around the same time decided to go to the embassy in person…and ended up being called back two more times. So I’m all about mailing them in.

But be prepared for the cost. The handling fee for the visa center is about $45 USD per application. The visas themselves are about $115 USD each. So a family of three is looking at about $450 just to get the visas. I had pretty much booked our entire trip before I found this out. If I’d known ahead of time I probably would’ve added a few more days to make it worth the extra expense. (Plus our son’s daycare ended up being closed for the holidays for two weeks, so we really could’ve taken advantage of the extra time away).

CONCIERGE SERVICES

The other thing that I would like to mention is the hotel concierge. I had never bothered to use them before, but if you are staying in a hotel in Russia, they are an invaluable resource. For one thing, you will need an official invitation to enter the country. The hotel can easily produce this and send it to you via email. You must then include it in your visa application package.

Our hotel concierge in St. Petersburg was also very helpful when it came to train tickets and restaurant reservations. I really do like to do everything myself. But there’s only so much you can accomplish when the Russian site for train tickets keeps timing out on you. A simple email to the concierge (plus a small administration fee), and we had three train tickets to Moscow waiting for us at the hotel.

The entrance to our hotel, the Renaissance St. Petersburg Baltic.
The entrance to our hotel, the Renaissance St. Petersburg Baltic.

Many Russian restaurants don’t have email addresses. So unless you’d like to make an international phone call to make a dinner reservation, just send another email to the concierge, and it’s a simple local call for them. They can also tell you if the restaurant is closed for the holidays or has closed permanently, which is a common occurrence.

Anyway, that’s my two rubles worth. Happy travels!