For Travel Writers Tales

By Chris McBeath

For those familiar with the Soviet Era, there’s a storyline about Russia that fuels wary expectations. After all, their current President is ex-KGB and the long and extensive visa application (including biometrics) seems to endorse such thoughts. Authorities may not encourage solo meanderings but in the last 20 years, the savvy Russians have developed a quality tourism infrastructure that puts their star cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, front and center.

MOSCOW

The Kremlin Grounds, Red Square, and selfies in front of the multi-colored domes at St. Basil’s Cathedral are iconic must-dos. If you’ve more than a weekend, less advertised activities await in this thriving, cosmopolitan center.

Travel the Metro

Modeled on London’s tube, Moscow’s Metro was actually completed earlier making it the oldest underground transit system in the world. At about 50c/ride, it’s certainly the cheapest. Here, the stations are destinations unto themselves; each decorated according to a theme whether in stained glass panels; op-art geometrics, life-size casts of Revolutionaries, or mosaics of the Georgian countryside. Travel the circle line for the best stations; with trains arriving every two minutes you can afford to make a number of stop-offs.

 

Take a River Cruise

Cruising along the Moscow River is touristy, but in the evening especially, it’s a worthwhile venture. Embankments are softly lit, landmarks sparkle against the sky, and everything you may have seen by day takes on a different perspective. Drinks and dinner are reasonably priced and well prepared. In winter, the vessels crack through the ice with noisy, disconcerting ease.

Shop GUM

The State Department Store, GUM, is often described (and lit) as Moscow’s ‘Harrods’. Built in 1890 in the Russian Revival style, with daylight flooding through the decorative atriums, GUM is filled with foreign and Russian shops, eateries, and a kitschy faux Stalin-era food shop called Gastronom #1. Public washrooms are clean and stocked, and like elsewhere in Russia, access will cost you 50 rubles. Always carry some change.

 

The Metropol Hotel

Fans of the book “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles will want to visit this legendary hotel located within steps of the Bolshoi Ballet and the Kremlin. Splurge for a meal in the Marble Hall, with its stained-glass dome, monumental lighting fixtures and marble fountain or, at the very least, have a drink at the Chaliapin Bar; it’s the only place where you can try the antique Russian rye vodka, polugar. The bar also hosts a traditional Russian tea ceremony, daily at 10am.

ST. PETERSBURG

As the elegant and historical capital city, St. Petersburg’s 18th and 19th century architecture, grand palaces, museums and boulevards manage to overshadow the less imaginative blocks from the Soviet era. Streets are easy to navigate on foot, and feel steeped in a history that’s larger than life – the Greats of Peter and Catherine, the murder of Rasputin, the Revolution and the tragic end of the Romanov dynasty. If the opulence of The Hermitage, the Summer Palace and Peter & Paul Fortress cause sensory overload, here are some words to the wise.

The Winter & Summer Palaces

Go early in the day before cruise ship passengers and tour groups extend line-ups into four-hour waits just to get into the door. At peak times in the Summer Palace, visitors are often routed in a manner that cannot take in every room. With such an over-abundance of content, this isn’t such a loss, especially since the garden offers a magnificent respite.

Peter & Paul Cathedral

Beneath its landmark gold spire lie the remains of Russia’s dynastic leaders from the “Greats” to the Romanovs. Adjoining the mausoleum is a side chapel where, with luck, you’ll be treated to a free concert of four-harmony acapela. The range of voices is chosen to showcase the chapel’s extraordinary acoustics for a result so finessed that you are asked that silence be your appreciation since any applause would be ear-splitting.

Nesting Dolls

Matryoshka dolls are everywhere. The better ones are signed by the artist, and crafted with finite decorative patterns that are consistent to each smaller doll. Quality sets are found in souvenir shops where free vodka samples are paired with ‘cruise-ship-passenger-prices’ which in off season, are steeply discounted! And if ever you thought Russians had no sense of humor, pick up a Putin nester. Each doll depicts a different Putin image including aviator-soldier and a shirt-free President. Very woke!

Photos (in the order they appear):

  1. Red Square at night (GUM, St. Basil’s Cathedral,Spasskaya Tower) – Chris McBeath photo (Header)
  2. GUM Department Store on Red Square, The ‘Harrods’ of Moscow – Chris McBeath photo
  3. Cathedral Square, inside the Kremlin – Chris McBeath photo
  4. Metro Stained Glass – M Kluzniak photo
  5. Night Cruise – Chris McBeath photo
  6. Metro Escalators – J Rogers photo
  7. St. Basil’s Cathedral – Chris McBeath photo
  8. The Hermitage (Winter Palace) – Entrance via Jordan Staircase – Chris McBeath photo
  9. Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace – Diana Larcom photo
  10. Putin Nesting Dolls – Chris McBeath photo