***Full disclaimer: I went on this trip two months ago but haven’t got around to posting this blog. SORRY.***
Remember the heady days of 2018? Oh, we thought we knew so much! I even remember posting a comment where I referred, with hilarious optimism, to a “Mr Gnidrah”! Ha! Well, he broke up with me, and I needed to do something completely different. So I happened to be reading A Gentleman in Moscow (I recommend it wholeheartedly) – and I thought, WHY DON’T I JUST GO THERE? AND SO I DID. And then Auntie Gnidrah said, why don’t I come too? And so she did. And so on New Year’s Day, we hopped on Aeroflot and headed for Russia.
We went first to Moscow. Our hotel was right beside the Bolshoi Theatre, around five to 10 minutes walk away from Red Square. We had our first experience of the mixture of kindness and madness we would experience throughout our trip.
Kindness: taxi driver downloads Google Translate to his phone to tell us the road is closed so we will have to walk. Madness: as 1st January is the busiest day of the holidays in Russia, about 1,000 soldiers are in central Moscow, and not one of them is keen to offer directions.
ANYWAY. That night we thought we’d just walk around and soak up the atmosphere. I have never seen so many Christmas lights in all my life. It was AMAZING. And then we got to Red Square and we saw the Kremlin and St Basil’s and Gum and to be honest with you, I was a bit overwhelmed. To see those things I had seen on TV so many times, right in front of you. And what the trip meant, given how it came into being.
Gum, the department store, has a huge Christmas fair with an ice rink in the middle of Red Square. We queued up for mulled wine and a crepe, and met these two girls who were from Tunisia, but were studying medicine in Russia. So we were speaking English, French and Russian and it was crazy! And then this couple asked where we were from and wanted selfies with us.
The next day, we went to Schokoladnitze. It’s like Starbucks but with character along with your coffee. And we walked and walked, taking everything in. Like this:
There was a massive festival going on in the centre of Moscow, with music and dancing and curling and market stalls. Then Auntie G decided she wanted to go to the Kremlin to see Lenin… You probably already know, but in case you don’t: when Lenin died in 1924, his body was embalmed and put on display in a mausoleum. It’s only open a couple of days a week, and then from just 11am till 1pm. And my goodness, despite it perhaps being a little, um, strange, as a tourist attraction, there’s a queue. Long story short: we waited for two hours in the snow and did not get in.
That night we ate in an Uzbek restaurant – meat and rice, mainly, but it was good.
The next day my aunt was adamant we had to try again with Lenin; she said she’d be disappointed if we’d gone all that way and not tried, so we queued like absolute champions – and at 12:45pm, we made it to the metal detectors. Then suddenly, it was like your ears had popped. We went past the other graves at the necropolis (y’know, like Stalin) and then we were really going in there. There were so many soldiers. Hats must come off, no phones or photos, no standing still. We went down several sets of stairs, and then turned a corner, all in pitch darkness, but then there he was, almost glowing, under the glass in front of us. Go on, ask me (everyone else has!): “did it smell?” No. But I will say this: I couldn’t have told you beforehand whether it was something I wanted to see or not, but the moment I got in there, the answer became clear very quickly. NOPE.
We went into St Basil’s Cathedral after that, which was not at all what I was expecting – I thought it’d be a church inside, but it’s not, it’s a series of interlinked chapels. Fascinating to see it for real.
For a change of scenery, we followed a tip from a Russian friend of mine, and boarded the Moscow metro (which is indeed an impressive sight) in the direction of VDNKh
This is when tips from locals really come in handy because I would never have known to visit here otherwise. It’s a huge park, developed by the likes of Stalin and Khrushchev as a sort of Expo, with pavilions for all countries in the Soviet Union. These days it’s used for all sorts – sports, food, exhibitions, there’s an aquarium, a space museum, even a McDonalds in there, 100% what our communist ancestors would’ve wanted, no doubt. It was snowing like crazy but it was so amazing to be probably the only foreigners in there.
Next morning we were up early and boarded a very swanky train for St Petersburg! Now this city has a very different vibe to Moscow. I had thought it might be more ‘touristy’? Perhaps that is true in the summer, but certainly not in the middle of the massive snowstorm that afternoon!
Our hotel was cute, even though the pictures online were VERY different from the reality (like, a completely different building) We set out to have a late lunch and by pure chance, found Vaffel & Wine, which does what it says on the tin: waffles and wine. It. Was. So. Good. If you’re ever there, look it up.
We walked to Palace Square and the Hermitage. We crossed the bridge over the river Neva, which was completely frozen. The snow was pretty bad at this point, so we decided that we would get dinner and hibernate. Another great meal, on the same street (Gorokhovaya) as the waffles, this one was at the Clean Plates Society – Stroganov in the home of this dish, washed down with St Petersburg cider!
In the morning, we set out for the Hermitage. I’d definitely advise pre-booking a ticket, as queues were long even in temperatures of minus 10c, and truthfully, much like the Louvre in Paris, you could spend days in there and still not see everything. So if you want to go, and you should, have a plan. There’s only so much gold this girl can take, and if we’d planned a little better, we’d’ve avoided at least 100 tonnes of it. Also be warned, you have to take your coat off. You have to. I got yelled at twice because guards thought I might be considering NOT taking my coat off. So be sure to remember which cloakroom you left it in…
After another big snowy wander, we tried to visit The Bottle. This is a former prison, now converted into FUN STUFF. Bad planner over here (coat firmly on) did not even stop to think that a million other people might be thinking of ice skating that night, so sadly that had to fall by the wayside, but on the plus side, we did have another nice meal… A pattern is emerging…
Next day was our last. We decided to visit another church – this one is called On Spilled Blood, which is pretty terrifying. The name comes from the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, which took place on this very spot. I hate taking pictures indoors, but this was quite something:
This. Day. Was. So. Cold. Around -15 Centigrade, windy, and my phone even stopped working, so chilly were the conditions. I had the coat and the boots and the extra layers but at this point, even I was like, DONE. I’m clearly not built for snow! My Mediterranean heritage was screaming out! We ended in a poignant place – the eternal flame, the monument to the fighters who lost their lives in the Russian Revolution.
And then to the airport. And then home. It was a whirlwind trip, that’s for sure, but it was everything I wanted and needed it to be. Incredibly different. Incredibly interesting. Incredibly independent. I’ve never visited anywhere like it, and I would definitely recommend it, though I would say that it’s perhaps not for the fainthearted! Everywhere you turn there’s something new to see – and I put it all together myself.
Now I just need to plan my next trip…