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Trip Report R & S go to Russia

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This report is from a pair of travelers ages 55 & 60; we prefer independent travel and have visited about 30 to 35 countries this way; our minimal experience with group travel has shown us hat we prefer being independent, although group travel has some advantages, we feel the freedom and adventures we have on our own out weighs the group experience; independent travel does require a lot more work with practical and logistical matters. The focus of this report is on the practical and logistical side of things that aren’t quite as necessary if traveling with a tour. I don’t provide much information on attractions or restaurants because everyone has different likes and dislikes. We always purchase several guide books; this trip we used ‘Rough Guides’, ‘Frommers’, and ‘Frommers Day by Day’. Also, we purchased and carried ‘International Travel Maps’ and a couple of phrase books. Doing a lot of pre-planning is important (and half the fun) and we always use the internet sites of Fodor’s and Trip Adviser; for Russia, there was not a lot of activity on Fodor’s but Trip Adviser proved to be of great value. All of our hotel reservations were secured online before we left home. I hope this report provides some useful information.

St Petersburg

Our three flights and 6 PM arrival into St Petersburg were all as scheduled and uneventful. At LED airport we proceeded through passport control, retrieved our luggage, drew some Rubles from an ATM and also changed some $US before heading for one of the two taxi counters in the arrival hall. The price quoted for the taxi to our hotel was 1100 Rubles, the driver who was waiting at the counter helped us with our luggage and we were on our way into the city. I gave the driver a 200 Ruble tip, which was more than he expected but, at the time, I felt he was very helpful with the luggage and was a very calm and careful driver in the rush-hour traffic.

Comfort Hotel on Bolshaya Morskaya:

http://www.comfort-hotel.org/en/reserve/classic_double1

The reception on the second floor was expecting us and gave a warm greeting in English before showing us to our room on the third floor. The double room and bath were clean and comfortable if not a little on the small size but included free WI-FI. The included breakfast each day was mainly cereal, bread, yogurt, boiled eggs and cold-cuts; it was very adequate for our needs, they also had coffee and tea plus a snack available at all times. The 24 hour staff all spoke English and were more than helpful with any questions or needs that we had. The location is excellent, easy walking distance to the Hermitage and, in fact, one day we even walked to Peter and Paul Fortress. A couple of times we walked to The Church on Spilled Blood and to Marliinskiy Theater. The nearest Metro stop is about a 20 minute walk as well. I very highly recommend this hotel both on its location and, as the name implies, comfort (the bed was very comfortable); and as I already stated the staff is great. There is an ATM on the first floor. There are quite a large number of restaurants with English menus starting a few doors away and within 10 or 15 minuets walk plus there is a very nice little market just a few doors away where we purchased wine, beer, chocolate, water and other necessities.

We spent 7 nights at Comfort Hotel; I would estimate that we walked about 5 or more miles per day exploring the historic center of St Petersburg. We attended the ballet at Marliinskiy Theater on Saturday evening, first walking there in the morning to purchase tickets and then walking again later for the show; Romeo and Juliet was playing either for the last time or the only time; I believe that by show-time all seats had been sold. The walk was about 20 minutes from the hotel.

The April weather was very nice for the first few days with plenty of sun and light winds, but after a few days the wind picked up and the sunshine was mixed with clouds and rain showers and the temps got cooler.

One day we took the Metro to St Petersburg’s Moscow Railway station to purchase our tickets for onward travel to Vileky Novgorod and on to Moscow. After much research on Trip Advisor we had decided to wait until we arrived in St Petersburg to obtain the tickets because it should be easy and less expensive. Of the rail options we had considered one was to go to Novgorod and after spending two nights return to St Petersburg and connect to the Sapsan and on to Moscow; the second option was to spend the same two nights in Novgorod and take the over-night sleeper train direct into Moscow where we would arrive about 6AM. We decided to go with the over-night sleeper option because it would save the expense of the Sapsan and one night in a hotel plus give us an extra day in Moscow, even though the extra day would start early in the morning before we could check-in to our Moscow hotel. So, knowing that language could be a problem in purchasing railway tickets, I had printed out the schedules from the Russian Railways website and marked the trains that we wanted the tickets for, and before going to the station asked the hotel staff to review it; they offered to get the tickets for us but also agreed that if we presented the print-out to the ticket agent there should be no problem getting the tickets we wanted. It didn’t work that way at all. When I tried to show the ticket agent the printed schedule they were very uninterested in helping us, telling us something in Russian that we, of course didn’t understand. A very nice young man in line with us who was not Russian but was living in Russia and spoke Russian offered to help us; we were sent to a different office, then to another office, than back to the last office (which was still wrong) then on to yet another office and after a couple of hours of back and forth and waiting in lines ended up with two sets of tickets. Then the young man asked to purchase his tickets and he was told that he should to go to the train station he was going to depart from, even though Russian Rail tickets can be purchased at any office. As it turns out the ticket sellers here only seem to be interested in selling tickets for trains that depart from their own station because they don’t understand the computer system or would rather not bother. The tickets for the trains between St Petersburg and Novgorod are on a different commuter rail system than Russian Rails so that explains one of the office changes.

Our last day in St Petersburg we asked the hotel to call a taxi to take us to the railway station, as I remember the cost, it was 300 or 350 Rubles, I gave the driver an extra 100Rubles tip as he let us out at the front door of the station. We used the luggage storage room in the basement of the station, I don’t remember exactly what the storage charge was for the few hours but it wasn’t very much. We tried the lockers first but our bags were too large. After a Metro trip out to see the area around Chemse Church and some lunch, we retrieved our luggage and boarded the train for Novgorod, arriving about 3 hours later.


Novgorod

Upon arrival into Novgorod we got a taxi to take us to Hotel Volkhov; the taxi driver charged us 200 Rubles, which I knew from previous reading was a bit on the high side, so I didn’t tip this time. The standard fare is, in fact, 100 Rubles.

Hotel Volkhov:

http://hotel-volkhov.ru/en/

We had reserved an upgraded room called a family room which included a very comfortable and larger double bed; over-all the room and bath were considerably larger that our last, but still very clean and comfortable. The included breakfast was similar to the last hotel but did have more selection. The staff was very nice, here as well. Internet access was by pre-purchased card, I don’t remember the cost but you can start and stop the usage until the time is used up so it wasn’t too expensive. The location in Novgorod is excellent and within walking distance to anywhere we wanted to go and only a short distance to the Kremlin. We spent the first day exploring the Kremlin and the other side of the river; it was a beautiful day with warm sunshine and light wind.

The second day was cooler and cloudy, and our decision was to take the #7 bus out to Yurev Monastery and the Museum of Wooden Architecture; the bus-stop is near the tourist information center next to the Kremlin so we thought we should ask for information so we could be sure of the bus and which stop to get off. The information lady didn’t speak English but marked two things on a map and away we went on the #7 bus showing the conductor the map. Several stops later the conductor indicated this was our stop, in the middle of nowhere, by a little road that lead down toward the lake and there was a sign that indicated a church with an onion dome that way, so off on foot we went for about half a mile or more, walking past some of the little local houses along the way. We came to the church where the gate was closed so we didn’t enter but at that time realized this was something different than the monastery, then we took another look at the map and knew that the monastery was about a mile or two further down the road so with one foot in front of the other, we had a very pleasant walk through the Russian countryside; we finally did reach the monastery. We looked around the monastery grounds and went inside one of the several churches, we could hear the monks singing in another but didn’t enter, and then continued down the country road another half-mile or so to the Museum of Wooden Architecture. By this time we were getting a bit hungry and tired but to our happy surprise there was a nice restaurant next to the outdoor museum where we sat at the bar and had coffee and tea along with a nice pastry before entering the museum grounds where we spent about an hour before a short wait for the #7 bus back to town.

Because this was our last day in Novgorod we had checked-out and put our luggage in the hotel storage room when we left in the morning and had plenty of time to kill before we were to depart for the railway station for our over-night train. In Novgorod, restaurants with English menus were a little harder to find but we did finally find one that we had not used before. I had not given much thought to the fact that our train departure time was about an hour later than the one that I had marked on the schedule but I made the assumption that the schedule and train number had changed and that the tickets we had purchased, with much difficulty, in St Petersburg were correct because our Russian speaking helper had looked at it and showed it to the ticket agent; but that was the wrong assumption. We arrived at the station about 15 minutes after the night train had left for Moscow, out tickets were all wrong; they were for Nizhny Novgorod to Moscow and not Vileky Novgorod to Moscow; ok, now our options are to wait 24 hours for the next over-night to Moscow and lose one night in our pre-paid and non-refundable Moscow hotel or take the morning train back to St Petersburg and connect to the Sapsan and into Moscow. We chose the daytime travel which, in the end, turned out best for several reasons; the weather that day was bitter cold with a strong north wind, and mixed rain and snow showers; we were on the train enjoying the view instead of wandering around Moscow, still tired from a short nights rest and not able to check-in to our hotel until 3PM. Our wrong tickets were refunded at about 50% of cost. Overall we have no regrets and are very grateful to the young man who had spent so much of his time helping us.
Hotel Volkhov gets a good rating from us, it has a good location, the staff is friendly and for the most part speaks English, the food is good; I would recommend the upgrade room; for our unplanned third nights stay we checked into a standard room, which for the one night was ok, it was much smaller that the family room. There is an ATM in the lobby and a taxi can be called with only a few minutes notice.


Moscow

With the new tickets we purchased from the nice Russian Railroad staff in Novgorod, (with the help of another Russian and English speaking passenger) we took the train back to St Petersburg and transferred to the Sapsan arriving into Moscow’s Leningrad Station at about 6PM. Our original plan was to transfer, with our luggage, on the Metro to our hotel, but on the Sapsan they offered a service where, in theory anyway, a taxi driver would be waiting for us on the platform holding a number and he would know where to take us for a fixed price of 750 Rubles. Unfortunately, there was no taxi driver waiting for us; we sometimes wonder if we were supposed to pre-pay on the train, but I really don’t think so, my best guess is the driver was simply a no-show. We headed out the front door of the station where there were two cues of taxis waiting, we approached the lead taxi that was nearest to us and in English he asked where we needed to go; he knew Holiday Inn Lesnaya and quoted 1500 Rubles where I said that it was too much, it should more like 750 Rubles; he again said it would be 1500 Rubles and I turned away and said we would take the Metro; just then he changed his tune and said he would give us a bargain at 1000 Rubles and we agreed. The expense was well worth the energy it would have taken to travel an unfamiliar metro system with our roller bags during rush hour plus we were dropped right at the front door of the hotel.

Holiday Inn Lesnaya:

http://www.holidayinn.com/hotels/us/en/moscow/mowlu/hoteldetail

This hotel has a very good location; it’s close to the Belorusskaya Metro and train station. The hotel itself is quite expensive, especially Monday through Thursday nights; we arrived on a Friday and had taken advantage of the discounted pre-paid rate for the weekend (first three nights) and we also had used Priority Points to reserve and pay for Monday night; so, all in all, it wasn’t as expensive for the four nights stay as could have been. The staff all spoke English, there is a money changer in the lobby (the rates, however, were not as good as could be found elsewhere). Internet costs, as I remember, 350 Rubles per hour and once signed on, the hour would run itself out weather online or not. We didn’t pay the extra fee for breakfast at the hotel. The room and bath were very large, clean and comfortable. I will give this hotel an excellent rating for location and comfort; the location is especially good for travel to or from SVO airport.

Our first evening found us rather tired after the long day of travel so rather than go out for dinner we found a little market just down the street and around the corner where we purchased some beer, cheese and chips for a self-catered feast in the room. The next morning we went for breakfast at a café that was just down the street on the way to the Metro station; we learned that this café had free Wi-Fi so we used it for both breakfast and evening dinner several times for the balance of our stay in Moscow.

We spent our three full days in Moscow traveling on the Metro to Red Square and The Kremlin as well as going to the sculpture park that is next to Gorkey Park and also to Arbat shopping street.

Our last morning was an early check-out and walk to Belorusskaya train station where we used the Aeroexpress to SVO airport for our Aeroflot flight to Amsterdam where we connected to our other flights home. The cost of Aeroexpress was 300 Rubles each; the hotel quoted us 2700Rubles for a taxi.

A few random thoughts:

We had no trouble getting around on foot or by Metro because we had a good set of maps and used a compass, the compass is a very useful tool to have while in a metro station so as to know the general direction of the proper exit. It was fun to study the Cyrillic alphabet while learning our way around the Metro and elsewhere; we always carried a Lonely Planet phrase book. There are plenty of ATMs and money changers in both St Petersburg and Moscow, we changed some US Dollars along the way and always got a good rate at the changers who post the current rates, better that if using a credit card. The people one needs to deal with try to be helpful and the younger than 30s usually speak English; railroad people seem to be the exception. At no time did we ever feel any kind of danger (except crossing the street); we saw only a few pan handlers and they were elderly or disabled; unlike many places we have visited, we had no one in our face trying to con us out of something. The cities we visited were very clean; the countryside not so much. This was our first international trip where we carried our own mini-laptop which proved to be wonderful. The food was always good (with the exception of Aeroflot), the beer is good and the people are very nice. We enjoyed our time in Russia.

Before I have even completed this 2010 trip report or even viewed my pictures, we have made airline reservations for our March 2011 trip to Turkey.

Happy travels,
Rod

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