Russia, an adventure in more ways than one by Angelo Narciso Songco

I was so fortunate to have made quite a lot of travels these past two years and one of my most memorable trips ever was a two and a half week holiday in Russia with my Mom, and four relatives from Toronto and Pampanga.  For those interested, it’s certainly the best time to visit this amazing country as prices have gone down substantially from the significant depreciation of the ruble.  I was very pleasantly surprised that the people are very nice, though most hardly spoke English; the food is quite appetizing (despite many who say otherwise); and the sights and sounds and the feel of the place were just amazing for me.  The window to visit Russia is between May to September when it’s not unbearably cold and the days are longer.  There are still tourists braving the winter months travelling by land as the rivers freeze up making it impossible for river cruises.

Whilst Russia isn’t a major destination for Filipino travelers, it has been a lifelong dream of my Mom and my uncle to visit this vast country, formerly the Soviet Union.  It all started with a Skype chat with an aunt in Toronto who also has itchy feet.  I recall talking to her while I was in the Taipei 101 Mall.  I was reviewing the emails she sent about discounted Russia tour packages.  A valuable tip to save is to subscribe to websites that consolidate value deals from different operators and send to its subscribers.  I discovered that aside from joining a package tour of Russia which is usually combined with Scandinavia or Estonia and Finland, there are river cruises that are offered as well that traverses the many waterways in Russia.  We chose the last one from Moscow to St Petersburg that was on sale.  We booked two suites for three aboard the MS Konstantin Fedin of the Vodohod Company and were very happy with the accommodations for the price we paid.  This tourist class vessel manned by a very nice crew and escorted by Gate 1 Travels tour personnel were much more comfortable as these ships, river boats in particular didn’t have big quarters.  However, each little space is meticulously planned to maximize comfort and functionality.

A package tour isn’t much of an extreme adventure as all activities are present whether included in the package or as an optional tour.  Aside from the touristy city tours visiting Kremlin in Moscow and Peterhof Palace in St Petersburg passing through the Volga river which changes names as it runs northwest.  For a first timer on a river cruise, it was an interesting experience watching the ship go up and down various locks, a man-made part of a river or canal where the water level suddenly changes.

An announcement of the following days activities is places in the room the night before promising adventures on and off the ship.  Aboard the ship, passengers can participate in free activities from Russian language and dance classes, vodka tasting, pelmeni (Russian dumpling) making clases, to talks about handicrafts, fairytales and the Russian way of life past and present.

Included in the Moscow city tour on the first day was passing by the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, St. Basil’s Cathedral and the former headquarters of the KGB, the Red Square, and GUM department store.  Much of the second day was spent walking inside the Kremlin, one of the best-known monuments in Russia and in the world. Luckily, film has become obsolete (just make sure your digital camera or mobile phone has a big memory for the hundreds of pictures you’ll be taking of the many many churches big and small, ornate and more ornate).

We joined an optional tour to the 16th century Novodevichy Convent, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but weren’t as impressed as what we saw in the Kremllin.  Unfortunately, the minimum number of guests weren’t met for the visit to the Tretyakov Gallery, the national treasury of Russian fine art but we had our fix of Russian and other art in the Hermitage Museum where we also got to see an authentic Russian presentation of Swan Lake.  We likewise booked the optional Bagatista folklore show which I would recommend as a second priority for those on a budget.

After three days in Moscow, it was time for the ship to set sail for smaller towns Uglich, Yaroslav, Goritski and Mandrogi, each having their own charming character, beauty and significance in Russian history.  Uglich was where Prince Dmitry hid from the bloody reign of his father Ivan the Terrible.  We visited the Church of St. Dmity-on-Blood and the Transfiguration Cathedral and even got to listed to a quartet of Russian tenors.

The Golden Ring City of Yaroslavl, is one of Russia’s most ancient cities going back to the time of the Vikings.  The highlight here was a tour inside the 18th century governor’s mansion.  Throughout the tour, expect to visit a lot of churches and learn the subtle difference between Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox religion. 

Goritsy’s highlight is the Monastery of St. Cyril of the White Lake, one of the largest and best preserved medieval abbeys in Russia.

Sadly, the waters along the river leading to the huge lake where Kizhi Island was were too rough for us to sail there and the captain had to cancel that part of the cruise and instead we visited a small museum and decommissioned submarine in the town before entering the lake.  In the evening, the ship set sail and it was a rough ride that would make the faint of heart rather nervous and review the safety demonstration when the cruise started!

Before docking in the final destination of St Petersburg, we stopped for the day in the Village of Mandrogi, village recreated in Russian 18th century tradition showcasing different handicrafts in various ibzas or houses.  We had a nice shaslik (barbecue) meal on the island entertained by the ship’s resident musicians and singer who also doubled as the tour photographer and videographers.

My pre-tour adventure

As I flew into Moscow four days prior to the start of the cruise, having redeemed a free flight with my miles, I had two days to explore the city on my own, I booked a reasonably priced hotel just off the city centre and managed to find my way to the tourist spot.  Bring good sturdy shoes as mine fell apart in the rain lugging my huge suitcase up and down pedestrian underpasses looking for the hotel my cousin booked for us nearer the Kremlin. This is when I realized that it was a major challenge communicating with the Russians who hardly spoke English but were very nice – you just can’t understand them.  Once I found the hotel, a full two hours from leaving the first, (it should’ve just been 15 minute if I didn’t get lost in the rain and cold), I did some shopping errands.  Shopping for luxury goods is more expensive versus other parts of the world as Russia doesn’t have tax refunds for tourists.  But for those with a deep pocket and a fashion addiction to the latest trends, one can find rare collector’s items from famous fashion brands.

In St Petersburg, we were kind of all Russia’d out and spend a lot of time in the hotel we booked which included free massages having made the reservations direct.  We did walk to a Catholic church to hear mass and had a nice Chinese lunch in one restaurant.  Something we enjoyed so much that we had another Chinese meal the day after in a highly rated resto that served us a good Peking duck!

Moscow subway extravaganza

When in Moscow, one must find the time to ride their famous subway system which has the shortest waiting time between trains in the world with Russians already complaining if a train isn’t passing by in a minute.  Though one of the optional tours offered included a night tour plus a visit to some of the most beautiful stations, I organized one myself as after a few days, I already had an idea how to navigate the subway system.  I did an online search for the top ten most beautiful subway stations in the Moscow Metro and plotted our way around.  Ordinarily if I were by myself, It’d visit all the stations but since I was with some senior citixens, we had to stop for dinner and afterwards the group was tired and wanted to go back to the hotel.

For those who want to do this on their own, I suggest, getting a map that shows both the English AND Russian names of the stations as some of them do not have signs in English.

The white marbled station Kiyevskaya’s many artworks, frescoes and mosaics depicts life in Ukraine and soldiers during the October Revolution and the Civil War.  Dostoyevskaya, for Russian literary fans is recognizable having been named after the famous author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and displays murals with scenes from Crime and Punishment one of his most famous works.  Accessible from the Red Square, the Ploschad Revolyutsii station opened in 1938, is decorated with bronze statues of Russian soldiers, farmers, schoolchildren, workers and a whole host of other characters who helped “defend the Soviet nation”.

If you can only visit a couple stations, consider the Mayakovskaya considered by many as the jewel in the Moscow Metro crown.  It has a different vibe to it being more simple but with unique columns made from pink rhodonite columns.

I already made a couple trips on my one on the subway so I was a bit confident touring my family.  I saved on my mobile a description of what we were looking at so as to appreciate things more.  Be sure to stick together and not get separate.  If that happens, (it happened to us!) agree on who will go back to meet with the rest.

If there’s one regret I have about this trip, it’s not being able to watch a Russian circus.  I just thought of it while were already on our last two days in St Petersburg after the cruise.  As the waters on lake , we missed visiting what was supposed to be the highlight of the towns we’d be visiting – Kizhi Island

We booked a hotel and organized for ourselves a St Petersburg Canal tour and visit to the Fabergé Museum.  We were fortunate to have been able to hear mass at a Catholic church, very few amongst the mostly Russian Orthodox churches throughout the country,  Google Maps and other GPS technology helps a lot in maneuvering the city.  Wifi is available in hotels and most cafes and fancy malls like Tsum.  With the depreciation of the Russian ruble, travelling to Russia isn’t as expensive compared to Europe.  Shopping for luxury goods may not be the best thing to do as there is no tax refund for tourists.  However, with the capitalist vibe you feel in the big cities, major department stores carry all the top high end luxury stores with an extensive line of products.  In fact, the largest Hermest store outside of Europe is found in the historic Gum department store, just a stone’s throw away from the Kremlin.

Instead, buy the locally made beautiful handicrafts like matryoshka nesting dolls, that range from a few to a couple thousand dollars depending on the number of dolls nestled inside each other, and of course the craftsmanship.  Another must buy is authentic caviar which I was lucky to have bought in a store with an English-speaking staff because I had to ask if the almost hundred dollar jar of osetra I was purchasing would last til Christmas when I plan to serve it.

Like an earlier trip I made to Nepal, Russia is one country I would revisit in a heartbeat.  There are other river cruises to join as well as the famous trans-Siberian railway tour that spans three countries and two continents (Russia-Mongolia-China in Europe and Asia).

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