Saturday, August 28: New York to Moscow to St. Petersburg
We flew Aeroflot from JFK (Terminal 1) to Sheremetyevo Airport (SVO). The international flight lasted approximately 10 hours, then had a 4-hour layover, connecting to a 1.5-hour flight to St. Petersburg (LED). We arrived in Terminal F at Sheremetyevo, and departed from Terminal D. It was possible to walk between terminals, and both terminals were very modern and attractive, with signs in both Russian and English. It was necessary to claim our luggage on arrival from our international flight, then take it with us between terminals to recheck it for the domestic flight. Unless you are connecting from one international flight to another, it isn’t necessary to visit the transit desk. Just follow everyone else to immigration, baggage claim, and customs. You can smoke in the Sheremetyevo airport, both in certain restaurants/bars and at special smoking stations, although not at baggage claim. Some restaurants take only cash, and then only in rubles, so it may be wise to exchange some money before leaving home so that you aren’t unprepared on arrival. (I’m sure that there was a currency exchange at SVO, and probably also an ATM machine, but I didn’t see either one.) The international flight went smoothly, even though we were seated in coach class. We flew a 767-300, with a 2-3-2 configuration. We tried to upgrade using their new upgrade-to-business class program available since April 1, 2010, but our fares were ineligible. We also couldn’t upgrade to their “enhanced comfort” seats with more legroom, because they were considered exit rows and we didn’t speak Russian. So we ended up in a row of 2 in the second row of coach. There was a restroom prior to the bulkhead, which was quite convenient and not annoying. There were two drink services, followed by two meal services, but they didn’t really come around more frequently than that offering additional drinks. It was necessary to search them out in the galley for additional requests, but they were willing to comply. The only entertainment was general cabin movies that were only in Russian, without English subtitles. The equipment and amenities were better on our return flight home, when we flew an Airbus that had personal in-seat entertainment and the real-time flight path and pertinent flight data (e.g., time since departure, time to destination) shown on the general cabin screens. The flight attendants spoke basic English, so communication wasn’t a problem. Alcoholic beverages are not complimentary in coach class; beers cost the equivalent of $3 USD each, but they also accepted rubles (90 rubles per beer) and also Euros. Check-in opened 3 hours prior to the flight, despite the fact that the Aeroflot website stated that it would only open 2 hours and 40 minutes before departure. I would fly Aeroflot again, for the right price and if the flight times and itineraries were convenient. They weren’t any better or worse than any other airline that I’ve flown. Besides Aeroflot, our only other choice for a nonstop flight to Moscow was Delta, but because Delta does not fly between Moscow and St. Petersburg, it would have necessitated buying a separate domestic internal ticket, either on Aeroflot or one of their domestic airlines such as S7, Rossiya, or Transaero. (We got Delta frequent flyer miles anyway, because Aeroflot is part of Sky Team, although their flights don’t operate as code shares.) We had a last-minute gate change at SVO upon departure for LED, which then made it necessary to take a bus to board the plane rather than using a jetway.
I felt like a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders upon arrival in Moscow. We had been concerned that there might be something wrong with our visas. Obtaining the visas was much more difficult for Russia than for other countries that we have visited. We used Travisa (their website is www dot travisa dot com), which took about 3 weeks, much more time than we’ve needed to allocate for other countries. Travisa seems on top of things; they called twice for additional information after reviewing our forms. For example, my spouse did not list any previous job other than his current position, because he has been there for 20 years. But Travisa said they wouldn’t submit the application without another job listed. The forms also wanted to know every school every attended since high school, which got lengthy for me, a former teacher, who accrued credit hours that were not limited to a single institution. The application also asked for every country ever visited, which was difficult to fit into the allotted space. The visa application makes it necessary to account for every minute of your time in Russia; which hotels you are staying at on which days, and the exact days of your arrival and departure in the country. That wasn’t difficult for us, because we are over-planners, but it would make it difficult for backpackers and/or more spontaneous travellers or people arriving by train rather than air. You must secure both a letter of invitation AND a voucher for every hotel that you’ll be staying in, and although the forms may look nearly identical, they are slightly different, so be sure to have two from each hotel. Initially, we were missing one set of vouchers, but fortunately Travisa was a big help and caught that before submission. Had we tried to get the visas ourselves, I’m sure that they would have been rejected the first time for missing information. Then we would have had to claim that rejection on the next application, which may have subjected us to further scrutiny. So with all paperwork secure and in order, we begin our Russia vacation ...
Sunday, August 29: Arrival in St. Petersburg
We arrived at Pulkovo I Airport (LED) in St. Petersburg in the early afternoon. It is a fairly small airport for the number of travelers who visit this city. Judging by the size of the airport, most of the travellers must arrive by cruise ship rather than by air. We were bused in from the tarmac to the terminal. It took a long time to get our luggage, which was further complicated by the fact that the airport is very strict about allowing you out of baggage claim only after someone matches your baggage claim tags to the tags on your luggage. (I haven’t had anyone do that in a long time!) We hired a private guide (more about her later), and she picked us up at the airport and transferred us to our hotel. She had e-mailed me that the airport was rather confusing, and that it was difficult to set a meeting place, but we had absolutely no problems finding her. Our guide was Tatiana, who owns her own company called Russian Adventure. (The website is www dot russianadventure dot com.) She is, without a doubt, the best private tour guide that we’ve ever had, and I highly recommend her. I looked at lots of agencies in the St. Petersburg area, and Tatiana’s website is one of the most comprehensive. She carries that attention to detail and wealth of knowledge through all her interactions. She was like a walking, talking encyclopedia, sharing with us Russian history, architecture, art, customs, politics, etc. She is very talkative, and there was never a dull moment or a time when we lacked for conversation. She was very responsive to all my e-mail requests, often answering my communications late at night after a day probably spent touring. No request was too big, and she made great suggestions about the sights that we wanted to see to make sure that we experienced a variety of sights during our three full days with her, rather than becoming “palaced out” by seeing too many of the same type of thing over and over.
We stayed at the Grand Hotel Europe in the city center. We loved this hotel and it was 5 star all the way! There are myriad choices of restaurants (L’Europe, Caviar, Rossi, Chopsticks, Grand Terrace, Lobby Bar) and shops. There was a fitness center that we tried to view, but it is difficult to reach, having to go through the beauty salon. There is an Citi (?? Citibank) ATM machine and also a bank in the hotel, but the ATM is not near the bank office or owned by it. We weren’t charged any fees to withdraw money, either from the bank owning the ATM or by our own bank (credit union). Twice we withdrew 10,000 rubles (about $330), and there was an option to withdraw an even larger amount, although I don’t recall what that was. We booked our room through the American Express Platinum Travel Fine Hotels & Resorts program, so we received a room upgrade upon arrival to the historic floor (we didn’t book the absolute lowest standard room category, thinking that the standard would only upgrade us to a superior room; instead, we booked the superior category, hoping to be upgraded to a belle junior suite, which we were). The room was quite spacious, with a large sitting area (with a sofa, two chairs, two end tables, a coffee table, and an entertainment unit), desk area, a large foyer/entry way, and a large bathroom (with a real shower, complete with rainfall shower head and shower curtain). There was actually enough room to set/store two suitcases, which is almost never the case, and it becomes necessary to keep one bag on the floor rather than at waist-height. There was a DVD player, cappuccino maker, mini-bar, umbrella, safe, hairdryer, robes, and slippers. The toiletries weren’t a brand that I recognized, but there was a full complement available, including lesser-seen items like razors and toothbrushes. The locations is excellent, with one side of the hotel facing Nevsky Prospekt and the other reaching Arts Square. It is an easy walk to the Church of the Spilled Blood, Russian Museum, Hermitage, Kazan Cathedral, etc. Our room supposedly had air conditioning, but despite the fact that the outside temperature never rose above the high 60s, it was always very warm in our room. The air conditioning seemed to run continuously, but it never really produced cold air. Fortunately, one of the two windows in our room opened, and we were able to get some cool air through its tiny opening. (The windows were enormous, but only portions of it actually opened, and it was necessary to use a key-type instrument to do so. The other window did not open, nor did the “key” from one window work on the other.)
After checking in to the hotel, we unpacked and relaxed a bit, then walked to a nearby grocery store for some drinks to keep in our room. The grocery store was located on Nevsky Prospekt, in the block before the hotel, heading away from the city centre. It is on the same side of Nevsky as the hotel; walking from the hotel, first pass the Armenian church, then the 24-hour bookstore, then the indoor shopping arcade (which I believe is called Passazh, meaning The Passage or The Arcade), and the grocery store will be next in the basement of the arcade. This seems like a well-stocked store, and I think that they accepted credit cards, although we used cash each time.
We ate dinner in that same block, but back towards the hotel. According to my credit card statement, the restaurant was called Nevskij 40 (Nevsky 40), although that was difficult to tell from the sign outside of the restaurant. It was a refurbished restaurant with both indoor (down a few steps) and outdoor seating. Tatiana said that there weren’t any good restaurants on Nevsky (we equated it to eating in Times Square in New York; there are restaurants, but they aren’t the best ones in Manhattan), but we enjoyed our meal. We ate a typical Russian meal of beef stroganoff served with mashed potatoes (not egg noodles) and meat dumplings with a few beers for my husband and a few Diet Cokes for me; the total was about $50. The food was tasty, but I thought that the portions were small. $50 was our standard dinner tab, which was much less than we were expecting to pay for food. We thought that our dinners would easily be $100+, and they could have been if we had eaten in the hotel restaurants and not ventured out just a block from the hotel. We tended to visit touristy restaurants that had menus in English; otherwise, it would have been an arbitrary pointing to some wording on the menu. Admittedly, they weren’t the finest meals that we’ve ever had (no need for The French Laundry or Le Bernadin to worry), and we only ordered entrees, not appetizers, but the food was just fine, and there was a great variety of cuisines available to suit every taste. In a recent search online, I found nearby restaurants located at www dot nevskycontour dot com forward slash en forward slash nevskyprospect forward slash cafes; that website would have been very helpful to have seen before we visited.
Monday, August 30: Peterhof, Yusupov Palace, and the Church on the Spilled Blood
We had three sights on our itinerary for this day: Peterhof, Yusupov Palace, and Church on the Spilled Blood. Our day began at 10:00 am and ended around 7:00 pm, with only a brief 30-minute break for lunch. First, Tatiana drove us to Petrodvorets/Peterhof to see the park and fountains (we did not travel by hydrofoil). We did not visit the inside of the palace because of time constraints. We had a bit of a misfortune in that we were visiting St. Petersburg at the end of the month, plus on a Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, which Tatiana said was not the optimal combination in sense of working hours of the museums. For example, Catherine Palace with the Amber Room was open only on the Wednesday of our visit. We saw Tatiana’s honesty and her desire for us to love her city when she said “In case you decide to go on with some other guide or on your own – be careful planning!” Had we tried to see this city ourselves, we surely would have been tripped up with opening days and times. The fountains at Peterhof were amazing! The Grand Cascade is unbelievable! I only wish that it had been a brilliantly sunny day when we visited so that we could have seen the optimum effect of all the gilding. We spent at least 2 hours walking around the gardens viewing the more than 140 fountains. (It depends on how you count the fountains; some people may see one fountain, but others may count that same fountain as three separate fountains because of the complexity of jets, etc.) We loved the Samson and the Lion fountain, Golden Mountain (a smaller-scale version of the Grand Cascade), Chess Mountain (with colorful dragons at the top), Adam and Eve fountains, and Sun fountain. Peterhof is a not-to-be-missed sight, in my opinion. We also visited a colorful wooden church at the entrance to Peterhof, where we began to learn about the Russian Orthodox religion as well as the former stables for Peterhof; we would have missed these sights had we travelled by hydrofoil.
Next, we drove back into the city and shared a delicious lunch of pies. We ordered a smorgasbord of slices, filled with both savory and sweet ingredients like eggs, ground beef, salmon, whitefish, rabbit, cabbage, and rhubarb. It was somewhat of a quick lunch, where customers entered the restaurant and went right to the counter and ordered what they wanted. There was no table service. I was happy to try this restaurant and its local food; it wasn’t something that we would have done on our own, just because we wouldn’t have understood the process (e.g., no menus, no prices).
After lunch, we visited Yusupov Palace, the famous site of the Rasputin murder plot. At the time, I was happy with what we saw there, but thinking back, I don’t have any concrete recollections of this sight, so it is not on my must-see list. It was interesting to hear about the royal family and Rasputin, however.
The last sight that we visited was the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood. I thought the mosaics in this church were the most beautiful that I’ve ever seen; very colorful and pleasing to the eye. The outside of the church has colorful onion domes, making this destination a must-see. This church abuts a canal, which makes for some pretty pictures with the church in the background.
It was a quick walk back to our hotel from the church. We relaxed and refreshed a bit, then walked around the entire block surrounding the hotel in search of a restaurant. We made a counter-clockwise circle, first walking towards Arts Square rather than towards Nevsky. There are a few restaurant choices in the hotel block, but the menus that we saw were only in Russian. Perhaps if we had ventured inside, another language version of the menu would have been available, but we continued walking until we reached Nevsky, and decided on eating at IL Patio. (The IL on the sign is recognizable, but Patio looks like the Pi symbol, followed by AT a backwards N and O.) There were two sides to this restaurant, one serving Italian food, and the other serving Japanese food, but the servers worked both sides, and it seemed like you could order from either menu regardless of where you sat. As a matter of fact, I think the Italian-looking side was simply the smoking section, with the Japanese side being non-smoking. There was also outdoor seating for both restaurants. IL Patio is a chain restaurant, and we saw many more of them during our days in Russia. We ordered two pasta dishes, along with a few alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, and our total bill was about $50. The website for IL Patio is www dot il-patio dot rosinter dot com; after you navigate from the home page by choosing a city, the website is in English. The pasta portions were adequate, although not overly large, but I did see other customers order pizzas, which were huge (yet I think personal-sized).
Tuesday, August 31: The Hermitage and St. Isaac’s Cathedral
Tatiana met us at our hotel, and we walked up Nevsky Prospekt, with her pointing out interesting sights like the Armenian Church, Gostiny Dvor, the Singer Building, and other churches. We made a brief stop in Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral. (Ladies should carry a scarf or pashmina, because it is respectful to cover your hair when you enter an active church.) FYI: There is another Kazan Cathedral in Moscow. Our first major destination was the Hermitage/Winter Palace, but we first stopped outside in Palace Square for a history and architecture lesson. The Hermitage was as impressive as we had imagined, in terms of both the art collection and the buildings themselves. There’s some astounding fact like you could walk for 22 miles and still not cover the entire collection. Highlights of the art collection are the Madonna Litta and Madonna with a Flower [Benois Madonna] by daVinci, Crouching Boy by Michelangelo, and the Three Graces by Canova. There are a few cafes in the basement of one of the buildings, but it might be necessary to backtrack to get there. It was NOT necessary to pay an extra fee to take photographs inside the Hermitage; the freedom to take pictures was included with the ticket price. We debated about paying for early entry to the Hermitage, whereby each person can pay approximately $30 extra to enter the building one hour before general admission. Tatiana did not encourage us to do this, feeling that the cost was high and the value low. Because all the cruise ship tours and large-group day tours take the early admission option, there is still a crowd at opening time. I didn’t see any long lines outside of the Hermitage to purchase tickets, as I had read about online; however, Tatiana purchased our tickets in advance, so it wasn’t necessary to stand in any lines to either buy tickets or gain entrance. You must check your coats and bags before you enter the actual museum, and there are many coat-check counters available along with good restrooms in a sort of basement area. The Hermitage was really warm inside despite the cool temperatures outside, so it was wise to check our coats.
After the Hermitage, we stopped for a quick lunch at a fast-food place called Teremok (which looks like Tepemok on their signs), the equivalent of McDonalds, I think, where we ate different types of pancakes (blinis, which I previously thought were only filled with caviar, but now I know are also filled with ground beef, ham, cheese, or sweets like berries, jam, or chocolate) as well as two different kinds of hot borscht. There are three types of Teremok outlets: street kiosks, food courts, and counter-service restaurants. No alcoholic beverages are served, and I didn’t see anyone smoking there, either. The website for Teremok is www dot teremok dot ru, but the site is only in Russian.
Next, we walked to St. Isaac's Cathedral. This cathedral is impressive inside, with a massive dome that holds a hanging dove. Inside, there is also an interesting model of how the cathedral was created. The real draw to this cathedral is climbing the 300 steps (and they are numbered nicely for you!) to the observation colonnade to get an excellent 360-degree view of the city. Lastly, we hailed a cab and traveled to Peter and Paul Fortress. I use the term “cab” loosely, for it was just a random Russian driver who needed a few bucks. We didn’t exactly hitchhike, because we paid for the ride, but it wasn’t an official city taxi. We visited the church at Peter and Paul fortress, viewing the graves of the famous Russian czars and czarinas and families; there’s lots of gilding objects inside. Outside, the bell tower is a beautiful sight, the statue of Peter the Great gives you a good idea of his height and thinness, and the views back towards the city center from outside the fort walls is excellent.
We ate dinner at Grand Terrace at the Grand Hotel Europe because we had a $100 credit from booking through American Express Platinum Fine Hotels and Resorts. And guess what? Our bill was just about $100 for the same two entrees and drinks that we had just around the corner for half the price. But the location was excellent, because it is positioned on the corner of Nevsky and Mikhailovskaya, and we sat outside covered up with cozy blankets and watched the pedestrians stroll by. We had a pizza and a veal schnitzel dish, the latter of which was tasty. The pizza, while huge, was not very good, and I wouldn’t recommend it. Service was sub-par as well, although it was difficult to tell how much of this was our own fault. In the US, we are accustomed to first ordering drinks, then ordering food usually after the drinks are delivered. In Russia, the servers seemed to expect patrons to order everything at the same time, including drinks and food. Perhaps if we didn’t have to scrutinize the menu each time, even looking for something simple like a non-alcoholic soft drink, we would have had an easier time with ordering and received better service. As we read online, when we paid our bill (even if it was using a credit card), we left 10% of our total check in cash as a tip.
Wednesday, September 1: Tsarskoye Selo, the Metro, and the Russian Museum
We visited Catherine Palace Pushkin/Tsarskoye Selo. En route, we stopped to see the Cesme church and palace, which was the same place where Catherine the Great would have stopped to rest en route to her summer palace. The Cesme church looks like a pink wedding cake, and is still used today for religious services Again, ladies should cover their heads with a scarf, because this is an active church. (FYI: I didn’t see any scarves “for loan” at any Russian churches as I’ve seen before in other countries.) We were greeted by an interesting site today, because it was the first day of fall and the first day of school/studies, so every child that we saw carried flowers for his teacher. (I wish that custom was practiced back when I was a teacher!). Conversely, when we saw an adult woman carrying an armload of flowers home at the end of the day, we knew that she was a teacher. Of course, don’t confuse either the children or the teachers with the regular men and women you will see each and every day who are carrying floral bouquets; the Russians LOVE their fresh flowers! And they don’t buy them in grocery stores like we do either. They buy them at an honest-to-goodness florist shops, which you’ll also see everywhere. Both the exterior and the interior of Catherine Palace are amazing, and the Amber Room is not-to-be-missed. (I had read online that some of the more expensive tour agencies included a peek inside the amber workshops in their tours, but I didn’t see any evidence of that sneak peak in person.) The inside of the palace is stunning, as are the grounds, with many interesting elements like an English church, Muslim mosque, music conservatory, stone bridge, pyramid (the tomb for her beloved dogs), Asian village, philosophers busts, and amazing flowers everywhere.
We had lunch at a restaurant called Cabinet-Portrait, which was the fanciest of our lunches in St. Petersburg. Tatiana said that she chose the three restaurants so that we could get an idea of what a fast-food chain lunch was like, a quick meal, and a businessman’s lunch with multiple courses. The interesting thing was that all three lunches were nearly similar in price, less than $30 for three people, including drinks. The businessman’s lunch included a soup, salad, a entree, and a drink. I can’t recall whether we had dessert also, but I don’t think so. The restaurant was interesting because it was decorated with old photography equipment including cameras, enlargers, etc. and played old films featuring people like Charlie Chaplin. This meal was served by a waiter, versus our other two lunches, which were counter service.
After lunch, we toured some metro stations, getting off at interesting ones so that Tatiana could explain their features to us. I think we visited stations including Ploshchad Vosstaniya, Avtovo, Kirovsky Zavod, Krestovskiy Ostrov.
Our last stop was a short tour of the Russian Museum. We didn’t have a major interest in seeing this museum, other than we didn’t want to go to Russia and not see any Russian art. (There is NO Russian art in the Hermitage.) We had only about an hour to visit the museum before it closed, which was not enough time. We didn’t get to see any Kandinsky paintings, however, which was a disappointment. I believe that they are housed in a wing of the museum that was not open to us at the time.
This evening, we walked around the corner from the hotel to see Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet at the Grand Palace Theatre (Theatre of Musical Comedy) on Italyanskaya Street. Our other choice was to see Giselle at the Hermitage Theatre, but we were advised that the quality of the program at the Grand Palace Theatre would be better, although that meant giving up the outstanding surroundings at the Hermitage Theatre. I’m glad that we saw a ballet while we were in Russia, but I’m just not a fan. I love Broadway musicals and plays, but the ballet just doesn’t bowl me over. We ordered tickets online (at www dot rus dash ballet dot com), and they were supposed to be delivered to the hotel, but that never happened. We were able to pick them up about 45 minutes prior to the performance in the theatre lobby. They were holding many other sets of “will call” tickets. The theatre is quite nice, and the chairs are comfortable. We sat in the “stalls”, which is equivalent to orchestra seating in the US. There was mezzanine and balcony seating also. The premium-seat tickets cost approximately $100 each. Afterwards, we had some drinks and dinner at the Lobby Bar at the Grand Hotel Europe. For two rounds of drinks, a club sandwich, and an eggroll-type appetizer, the cost was about $100, proving that even a quick and not elaborate meal in the hotel was twice as expensive as a meal just down the block or around the corner.
Thursday, September 2: St. Petersburg to Moscow
We didn’t have any plans for this day, other than our transfer flight between St. Petersburg and Moscow. We liked our stay at the Grand Hotel Europe, but unfortunately, our last minutes there spoiled our experience a bit. When we checked out, there were charges on our bill that we did not understand. Two of them were easily explained: the fee and associated tax for registering our stay in order to complete the visa process. It would have been nice if the line item entries accurately described the charges so that we did not have to ask for an explanation. We were also charged the equivalent of $10 for sending a fax, which we did not send. (Who sends faxes anymore these days? Doesn’t everyone just scan and email instead?) There was a lengthy back-and-forth between the front desk and someone else (perhaps the telephone operator or someone at the business center) as to whether we sent this fax. In the end, the charge was removed from our bill, but not before my spouse was forced to write and sign “I did not send a fax” like a child would be reprimanded to write on a chalkboard! We also had a problem with our return airport transfer. Although we asked the bellman, and called down to the front desk two times, no one told us that it would be necessary to order/ reserve a city taxi to take us to the airport, and that it would take at least 30 minutes for the car to come. Had someone told us that prior to check-out, we would have planned accordingly, but we didn’t feel that we had an extra 30 minutes to wait for the ordered car to arrive. (We weren’t exactly pressed for time, but we wanted to allow 1.5 hours to reach the airport, with an additional 1.5 hours at the airport pre-flight.) The hotel had Mercedes transportation available, but at a cost of approximately $125 USD one way. We ended up walking outside of the hotel and hailing a taxi that was waiting across the street. The cost was $70, significantly less than the hotel Mercedes, and only about $10 more than the city taxi quote.
We arrived at the Pulkovo domestic airport well in advance of our flight. In order to check in, you must consult the large flight board to see the numbers of the counters where your flight is checking in. We initially got in one of the longer lines, thinking we would just follow the masses, but we quickly caught on that we needed to start a new line in front of an unused counter. I’m probably not explaining this well. There aren’t dedicated counters for airlines like in the US; you consult the big board, and then stand in front of a numbered counter, even though the TV screen behind the counter may not yet be broadcasting the check-in of your flight. The big board also indicates what time the check-in counter opens, what time you should go through security, and what time to actually board. It seemed that there was only one gate actually attached to the airport, with a small cafe, shop, and restrooms nearby. Other flights departed from these circular waiting areas on the tarmac that you reach by moving walkway and then stairs or escalator (the escalators were out of service when we were there). There were no services in the circular waiting areas - no restrooms or cafes or shops - so don’t leave the main terminal too early. We walked onto the tarmac to board our flight - there were no jetways. The Aeroflot flight went smoothly, less than 1.5 hours in length and yet they still served drinks and a sandwich/snack. Arrival in Moscow was problem-free, although we waited at least 20 minutes for our baggage to be unloaded.
At the baggage claim at Sheremetyevo Airport, we were met by a driver from our Moscow tour agency, Bridge to Moscow, who transported us into the city. The traffic was unbelievable, but to be fair, it was approximately 5:00 pm, and perhaps the roads were clogged with people returning home from work. It took over 2 hours to reach the hotel from Sheremetyevo Airport.
We stayed at the Hotel National off Red Square for four evenings in early September 2010. This hotel is a Starwood property, and was once a Le Meridien, but now is just considered to be part of their Luxury Collection. It is also part of the Leading Hotels of the World chain. We were under the impression that this was a 5-star hotel, but in reality, it was more of a 4-star hotel. We think that it may have been a more premier hotel before the Ritz-Carlton opened just around the corner. (To us, the location of a Ritz or Four Seasons property, and our hotel’s proximity to it, is a good indicator that our less-expensive hotel is in just the right location.) We were upgraded (I think, based on the desk clerk telling us that he was “looking for a nice room”) to a studio, so we had a room with a sitting area and desk and TV, attached to another room with the bedroom, another TV, and large bathroom. The shower doors were glass, and it featured a full-size shower; however because of its design, it could not be used to actually take a bath. There was no door between the two rooms, but there was a velvet curtain that you could pull for privacy, and each room had its own TV. The room also had a luggage room. The floors in the hotel are numbered oddly, and even though we were on the sixth floor, our room was numbered in the 400s. From the hallway, it appeared that there were two doors into our room: 402 and 404, but 402 was a false door and didn’t really lead anywhere. I think that the rooms may have been much smaller before their last refurbishment, with the luggage room having been another bathroom in its past life. When I looked at the emergency exit map in our room, it indicated that our room was one of the smaller ones, but I felt that the two-room setup was quite spacious. Our room faced the interior (exposed) courtyard rather than having views of Red Square (those rooms seemed a lot larger according to the exit map). Supposedly, our room had air-conditioning, but we were never able to get it below 78 degrees. Had we been able to open the windows, it would have cooled down immediately, but the windows cannot be opened. Or rather, it looks like they can be opened, but only with a special key that isn’t provided in the room. I’m sure it’s a security feature. There is twice daily maid service, including an evening turndown, but only one measly square of pre-packaged chocolate is provided for a total of two guests.
We didn’t see the swimming pool or fitness center, but the lobby bar was spacious, with both smoking and non-smoking areas, as well as an outdoor seating area. My spouse had read in some hotel review that the bar was frequented by “working girls”, and we were curious to see them in action, but there was never any evidence of them. Although we did not eat in it, the hotel restaurant had great views over Red Square (the prices were outrageous and it was easy and less expensive to eat outside of the hotel). There is a 24-hour currency exchange (although they were quite rude to us when we called on the telephone to ask a question, yelling into the phone that they didn’t speak English and hanging up on us!), and a concierge desk where they can arrange tours, entertainment, and airport transfers (we did not use the concierge). It seems that at one time, there was a newspaper stand/souvenir shop at the hotel, but the only reminder of it is on the engraving next to the button on the hotel elevators. The elevators were small, European-style; not more than 3 or 4 people could fit at a time, but there were two of them. Oddly, or maybe not, pushing the button for one of the elevators did not also activate the call button for the other (they were located on opposite sides of the lobby/hallway, which may account for the lack of communication between the two call buttons). They were not the smallest hotel elevators that we’ve ever seen, but they were by far from the largest.
After checking in and unpacking and relaxing a bit, we went in search of a grocery store. We found one in Tverskaya Street, on the opposite side of the street from the Hotel National and the Ritz. This was a much smaller grocery than we visited in St. Petersburg, with long lines, narrow aisles, and crowds, but we were able to buy drinks for our room, which was all we wanted. They accepted credit cards at this store, but we chose to use cash. It is necessary to use the underground passageways to cross Tverskaya. There is one at the corner, directly in front of the corner of the hotel. Later on in the week, we discovered a much larger and more well-outfitted grocery store by turning right outside the front of the hotel and then using the underground walkway to cross Mokhovaya Street towards the Armory/Kremlin. The grocery is in the underground walkway. Again, we used cash in that store, so I’m not sure whether they accepted credit cards. We then went in search of dinner, which we found right around the corner from the hotel on Tverskaya called La Cantina (Mexican), with both indoor and outdoor seating. It was pouring down rain, but we were still able to eat outside under their canopy, and smoking was allowed there. We spend another $50 on dinner for two, including entrees and some drinks.
Friday, September 3: The Kremlin and Kolomenskoye Estate
Our guide from Bridge to Moscow was Ludmilla. Ultimately, she turned out to be a good guide, but she was different than our guide Tatiana from St. Petersburg, with whom we seemed to have an instant rapport. Perhaps that was because Tatiana owns her own company, and each email contact that she and we had prior to our trip made it seem like we had already developed the basis for a friendship. It may have also been that Tatiana was close in age to ourselves, while Ludmilla was more of the age of our parents. Or maybe there’s just sometimes a connection and sometimes there is not. So although we were off to a slow start with Ludmilla, by the afternoon of the second day, she really began to open up to us, sharing personal information in addition to her knowledge about the sights that we were visiting. She has good background information to share about life in Russia during Soviet times, which she was able to contrast with life today. To us, Ludmilla’s personal information was as valuable as the information about important sights; we wanted to learn about the culture, history, and people of Russia just as much as we wanted to learn about the big attractions.
Ludmilla met us in the lobby of our hotel, and we walked across the street (via the underground walkway) to the Kremlin wall entrance that would lead us to the Armory. We had a 10:00 am reservation, I believe, and it was a pleasure to tour without hordes of people surrounding us. I enjoyed the Armory much more than I thought that I would, perhaps because Ludmilla did a nice job of explaining the silver, the coronation chairs, the costumes, and the Faberge eggs. We did not pay extra to view the Diamond Fund. This was our worst day weather-wise, and it rained off and on sporadically throughout the day. As we were deciding whether to see the diamonds, the weather appeared to be sunny, so we thought it best to take advantage of the break in the weather, but by the time that we got outside, we needed our umbrellas again. The weather was so odd - sun shining one minute, then steady rain the next minute. We visited the various cathedrals in the Kremlin complex, then departed the gates so that we could have lunch.
We were encouraged to eat somewhere in the shopping mall area in Red Square, so we really just chose the first place that we saw above ground, which was Sbarros. The meal was nothing to rave home about, and nothing unexpected. There are many more restaurants on the basement level of the shopping mall.
We then went on a walking tour of Red Square (seeing the outside of St. Basil’s, the GUM department store, and Spasskaya tower). Unfortunately, there was a special event in Red Square on September 4 and 5, and already, guards were blocking walking paths, setting up metal detectors, etc. There were grandstands blocking the classic view of St. Basil’s, which was a bit disappointing, but the positive side of the event was that the next day (Saturday), all the streets surrounding Red Square, including Tverskaya and Mokhovaya, were closed to traffic, and the streets were filled with people enjoying the evening. But you couldn’t walk anywhere freely because of all the guards and metal detectors. Tickets were required to watch the performances in the heart of Red Square. Our plan was to revisit the inside of St. Basil’s and Lenin’s Tomb on a subsequent day, but we were never able to do so because of the special event. Had we known what the extent of the closures in Red Square would be later in the weekend, we surely would have spent more time there today.
Next, we took the metro to the Kolomenskoye Museum Estate to see the “spaceship” Church of the Ascension (a UNESCO site) and Peter the Great cottage. Peter’s cottage is one of the sights in Russia where it is necessary to pay a small fee to take photographs. We also thought that we would see the large restored wooden palace of Tsar Alexis I that people are calling the "Eighth Wonder of the World”, but that did not happen. We spent a lot of time walking the grounds of the estate, and I guess we just kept thinking that the wooden palace was next on the list, but eventually we found ourselves back at the metro station and on the way back to the hotel. We ended up driving past the structure two days later, but there wasn’t any opportunity for an up-close view or photographs. The bathrooms at Kolomenskoye are terrible! Although there are Western-style toilets, they aren’t very clean. In general, restrooms were well-maintained throughout Russia, and it there wasn’t toilet tissue directly in the stalls, it was accessible from a shared dispenser on the wall just outside of them. There was always soap (and almost always the liquid variety) as well as paper towels or automatic dryers. There were only three restrooms that I remember being particularly awful, and Kolomenskoye was one of them. (Another unfortunate set of facilities exists at the Novodevichy cemetery, which I guess shouldn’t have been a surprise; only squat toilets were available, and there was no toilet paper, either. The last horrific restrooms were at Sergiev Posad just inside the monastery walls.)
Our original plan was to see the NIkulin Circus this evening, but it wasn’t possible to buy tickets online. Although we were able to reserve seats using their website (at www dot circusnikulin dot ru), it was necessary for us to pick up the tickets on the evening prior to the show, and the ticket office closed at 7:00 pm. With our late afternoon arrival in Moscow, and the traffic from the airport to the hotel, we were unable to pick up the tickets on time. Another strike against us was the heavy rain that Moscow experienced this evening. We ventured out with our umbrellas, and had dinner at Gusto, an Italian restaurant on a pedestrian-only street called Kuznetskiy Most that is not far from the Hotel National. Their website is www dot gusto dash moscow dot ru; however, it is only in Russian. We were able to use a credit card there, and the prices were reasonable and the portions large (about $50 total for two bowls of pasta and some drinks). Gusto has both indoor seating and two areas for outdoor seating: one inside a tent with sides and one underneath umbrellas but otherwise exposed to the elements. The tented area has heaters, and there are also plaid wool blankets available to keep you warm.
Saturday, September4: Christ the Savior Cathedral, Novodevichy, Tsaritsino, and the Metro
Today, Ludmilla and our driver met us at our hotel and drove us to Christ the Savior Cathedral. The church, originally constructed in 1812, was destroyed in 1913, after which time the site featured a gaping hole, until during Khruschev’s time, when he turned it into an enormous outdoor swimming pool that was open year round (Ludmilla remembers swimming there). The church was reconstructed in 1990. We spent some time both inside and outside the church, taking some nice photos from the nearby bridge. This church isn’t a must-see, in my opinion; however, there are some interesting bronze sculptures over the doors, and the views from the bridge are worthwhile, particularly of the 165 foot tall monument to Peter the Great standing on the deck of a sailing ship and clutching a scroll.
We then drove to Novodevichy Convent and Novodevichy Cemetery. We first viewed the convent from across the lake in Novodevichy Park, which makes for some lovely photos. There is a beautiful bronze statue in the park donated by Barbara Bush to Raisa Gorbachev as part of the START Treaty and showcasing Robert McCloskey’s Caldecott medal winning book, Make Way for Ducklings. There was a little boy playing hopscotch with the duckling statues, which was adorable. We saw the original version of this statue made by Nancy Schon earlier this summer in the Public Garden of Boston, and the American children were playing with the ducks in much the same way. Novodevichy Convent, also called New Maidens’ Monastery, has remained virtually intact since the 17th century. It is a fortress built on the Moskva River that sheltered ladies from royal families who were unmarried.
We also visited the accompanying Novodevichy Cemetery, which is the burial place of Russian nobility. Over 25,000 people are buried there, including famous authors, musicians, playwrights, poets, actors, political leaders, and scientists. Aton Chekhov, Nikita Khrushchev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Boris Yeltsin, and Raisa Gorbachev are buried there. I didn’t think I would find the cemetery particularly interesting, but it ended up being a nice surprise. There are several small chapels and many large, sculpted tombstones. The headstones are what makes the cemetery unique. The grave markers are so elaborate and different than the rather plain square headstones in the US.
Our next stop was Tsaritsino Estate. This isn’t a completely authentic historic sight; however, I enjoyed it immensely. Currently in Tsaritsino, there is a history and architecture museum, a landscape park with an adjacent forest, an art museum, the Biryulyovo dendropark, and a cascade of the Tsaritsino ponds. We didn’t visit inside any of the buildings. What I found particularly enthralling about Tsaritsino was the number of brides that I saw being photographed there. We visited on a Saturday, which is the most popular day of the week for Russians to marry (the second most popular is Friday). We must have seen a hundred brides and grooms posing for photos in front of the fairy-tale French chateau, bridge, and fountain.
We ate a traditional lunch in a cafe at Kolomenskoye. The restaurant had only a Russian menu, and fortunately Ludmilla was able to translate for us. Lunch cost approximately $25. After lunch, because we had let our driver go, we traveled home by metro, seeing some of the more interesting stations such Arbatskaya, Komsomolskaya, and Kropotkinskaya.
We ate dinner at the Posh Cafe, which was located on the pedestrian-only street Kuznetskiy Most near Gusto, where we dined the evening before. We had a selection of Japanese food, including sushi and some hot entrees like dumplings, tempura, and noodles. Our total bill was approximately $50, and we were able to pay with a credit card. Posh has both indoor seating and outdoor seated in a tented area with sides. There are blankets available to keep you warm, but I don’t recall seeing heaters; however, the weather was lovely and we didn’t really need them.
Sunday, September 5: Sergiev Posad, VDNKh, and Arbat Street
Our last full day in Moscow! First, Ludmilla and our driver picked us up at the hotel and we drove 43 miles north of Moscow to Sergiev Posad and the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius. This was a lovely day trip, and we had an excellent on-site guide at the monastery. There are a few stall-type shops on the grounds, along with vendors who set up their wares on tables along the pathways (outside of the monastery walls). The prices were not exorbitant, and the quality of the clothing and matryoshka dolls was excellent. There is a nice restaurant outside the monastery walls, as well as one inside where it was suggested that we try the pies. We had a snack in the restaurant outside, and the prices were reasonable, the menu extensive, and the atmosphere pleasant. If you travel to Sergiev Posad with a guide, you cannot use your private guide in the monastery. You need to request a guide in the language that you desire. We waited less than 10 minutes for an English-speaking guide, during which time we attempted to visit the restrooms just inside the monastery walls. I can’t even tell you if the facilities were Western or squat, because the stench was enough to drive me away. (The restrooms farther inside the walls were fine, though, so wait if you can.) This is one of the sights in Russia where it is necessary to pay a small fee to take photographs. The monastery is a pilgrimage site for devout Russian Orthodox people; although it is not my religion, it was easy to see the significance of the site for most of the visitors.
After the monastery, we drove to the VDNKh All-Russia Exhibition Centre. VDNKh is a sort of permanent world’s fair exhibit. It was created in the 1930s, and contains various pavilions and monuments, including buildings that showcase the former Soviet states like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Leningrad, Georgia, space exploration, the Propylaea, central pavilion, Friendship of Nations fountain, Stalin statue, and the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman statue by Vera Mukhina. Although we didn’t go inside any of the buildings (admission required), it was free to walk around the expansive acres of the park. It was very busy on the Sunday afternoon that we visited; the weather was warm and sunny, and Muscovites were out enjoying the fine weather at the park. I would love to revisit VDNKh when I have time to actually look inside the pavilions and exhibits.
We took the subway home from VDNKh, where we parted from Ludmilla on Arbat Street, a pedestrian-only street lined with shops and restaurants. We stopped for a late lunch at Doolin House (the website is www dot doolin-house dot ru, but it is only in Russian). Later, we went out for a late dinner, again at Gusto. To eat in the same place twice on the same trip is breaking one of our main travel/restaurant rules, but most of the other options on the street were Japanese restaurants, and repeating dinner at Gusto was less of an effort than trying somewhere new.
Monday, September 7: Moscow to JFK
Bridge to Moscow provided our transfer from the Hotel National to the Sheremetyevo Airport. The return transfer was quick and easy, taking less than 40 minutes. In fact, we arrived much too early to check in for our flight, and we had to sit in a cafe outside security until the numbers for our check-in counters were announced. Outside of security, there are a few cafes (coffee bars), a TGI Fridays, and a few souvenir stands. Inside of the international departures terminal, there are multiple duty-free shops. I checked the price on some matryoshka dolls, but they were unbelievably expensive. There are smoking stations within the international departures area near the restrooms.
We ate lunch at the Irish Bar, run by the Moscow RUS Ring Hotel. (The charge came through on our credit card as the Rembrandt Bar). The food was not very good, although it provided a handy second-story view of our departure gate, was near the restrooms, accepted credit cards, allowed smoking, and wasn’t crowded. The lack of crowds was probably because of its upstairs location and also its high prices. We paid about $10+ for what equated to a Lean Cuisine portion of lasagna, complete with the paper tray in which it was heated in the microwave, and other $10+ for a ham and cheese sandwich on a baguette, which although better than the lasagna, isn’t recommended either. We had a few rounds of drinks, too, and spent nearly 2 hours waiting for our flight. Our flight home departed about a half hour late because another flight started loading just prior to ours, and those passengers had to cross over the jetway area where we were to board. There is a quick bag check to enter the boarding area, although it would have been easy to skirt it. We had purchased several bottles of water to take with us on the plane, but we were told that we could not carry them on; however, we were able to drink our purchases in that gate area, and there wasn’t another bag check before getting on the plane. Not exactly secure, but what you are trying to carry on WAS purchased at the airport. We should have put the bottles in our carry-ons before going through the bag check; no one would even have noticed them. Bringing bottled beverages on the plane always seems to be a problem when returning to the US, even if you purchase the items after you’ve gone through security.
We flew Aeroflot, on an Airbus, which was much better equipment than the 767-300 that we had on the flight to Moscow. (The only thing better about the 767 was that the seats in coach were all leather, and they were cloth on the Airbus.) The personal in-seat entertainment systems were a big relief after the Russian-only general cabin movies on the flight to Russia. While the systems weren’t as good as some other airlines that I’ve been on, there was plenty of selection to pass the nearly 10-hour flight home. Service was the same; swift but not overly friendly, with two drink services followed by two meal services. The configuration on the Airbus was 2-4-2, and the position of the lavatories was not as favorable. We were in the second row of coach in a row of 2, and had to move rear-ward through the first coach cabin to reach them, which meant going backwards about 20 rows. The flight went smoothly, as did immigration at JFK. We waited for nearly 40 minutes for our bags, though, and that was after we passed through passport control - very slow when you’re anxious to get out of the airport and go home. Passing through customs also took more time than usual.
In summary, we really enjoyed our trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Our guides were good, particularly Tatiana from Russian Adventure in St. Petersburg, and we chose a good variety of places to visit in the two cities. In late August - early September, the weather was much cooler than we anticipated, so next time I would pack warmer clothes. I would also pack more stylish clothes; the Russians were beautifully dressed, and we stood out like the tourists that we are. It was fulfilling to see things that we had previously only read about, like the Hermitage, Peterhof, the Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and Red Square; they were more amazing than we had ever envisioned!
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