From Russia with love

by Arlene Rafiq

When I hear Russia, what comes to mind is that of apprehension maybe because of its history. But I am not covering its history but what it is today. I am curious about this country after friends visited and how much they had enjoyed their Russian escapade.

It was seven degrees when we arrived in Moscow… all excited but in spite of the tiresome journey and lack of sleep, we proceeded to start our excursion. Our local guide, Daria took us around Moscow as a familiarisation tour of the city followed by a three hour cruise on Moskva River appreciating the beautiful ancient buildings in Moscow along the river banks. The city looks ancient and the style of the buildings complements the ambiance. To me, it was interesting and had me envisioned the life in Russia then. Lunch was served while cruising and we were all relaxing comfortably inside the boat savouring the dishes that were served to us. Nothing was familiar except for the Russian salad. They served saucy food and all the servers were amused while watching us probably because we were all scrutinising the dishes. After the three hour boat ride, we felt really exhausted, we were all taken back to the van to head towards the hotel. We got to our hotel around eight in the evening completely fatigued. That was our first day.

The following day, as early as eight we were picked up by Daria to go to Tretyakov Gallery. Although still sleepy and a bit tired, I was looking forward to the gallery visit as I’ve read a story about this man, Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakow who collected works of famous Russian artists known all over the world with the aim of creating a collection for posterity. The gallery is impressive, well preserved with thousands of works of art done by famous Russian artists. Well, today not only did Mr. Tretyakow leave his collection to the Russian people but to the world. The day went by quickly. Traffic in Moscow, despite the six lane road, was I thought worse than Bangkok. As a result we did not get the chance to change for dinner at the posh Dr. Zhivago restaurant which served us up a wonderful set meal. We all felt underdressed and obviously not very happy. But we had good meal though so that made up for our frustrations.  We all went back to our hotel with full stomachs, experiencing for the first time, Russian food.

I came to Russia primarily to see Red Square and the Kremlin. Red Square had so much history that it was first on my list of places to visit in Moscow. Stepping on the ground that used to be a huge marketplace, a place to stroll and kill time and the venue for making public announcements was awesome. In 1919 the first Red Army parade was held here with Vladimir Lenin, its new leader who spoke to the nation. ‘A lie told often enough becomes the truth’ the great man said. From the entrance, looking towards the right is an old imposing building called the GUM. There is a touch of class as you enter the department store. The décor, quality of merchandise, layout and products on sale looks expensive. The merchandiser surely had thought of everything to make it look inviting, exciting and interesting. I was not planning to purchase anything but due to the beautiful display of products, the browsing ended up into buying. What a relief when it was time to meet up with the rest of the group to enter the Kremlin and also visit the iconic St. Basil Cathedral, otherwise it would have been a disaster financially.

Kremlin’s history is the drive for people to go there for sure. As you enter, the left side is full of ancient, small and big cannons all lined up as a testament to the Russians winning the war against the French. The small cannons were confiscated from the French army and the big cannons side by side with the small ones are the Russian’s. One could readily see the pride over winning against the French. The office building of the president on the right side as one enters is under renovation to our disappointment. Apparently, it’s called the senate building where the president holds his meetings.

About five hundred metres from the senate building is the St. Basil Cathedral also known as the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin which is an Orthodox church and the symbol of the city of Moscow. It is a most imposing building that if you had been to Russia but have not been to St. Basil Cathedral, it is like not visiting Russia at all. It is the most recognisable building in Russia built in the 16th century by order of Ivan the Terrible.

So much to see in so little time. It seems that we haven’t really scratched the surface and we have to go for another train ride to St. Petersburg. Our guide, Daria picked us up so early in the morning to catch the early train to St. Petersburg. We had breakfast packed for us by the hotel only to find that breakfast was served on the train. After four hours, we arrived in St. Petersburg but had to walk miles to reach our van. Sleepy, tired body and soul, we went on our scheduled journey. Our English speaking guide took us to Hermitage Museum, where the largest collections of European and Western arts in the world are. It was a feast to the eye as beautiful paintings and works of art are on display. Our time inside was limited, as hundreds of people are waiting to enter the museum, so it’s a sneak preview like in the movies. Our next stop is Catherine’s Palace. I thought, I have seen this type of interior all over Europe. Exquisite furniture and decorative objects, a unique collection of porcelain and the famous Amber Room, an entire room made of amber panels, mirror and gold leaf with a fascinating history. We drove back to St. Petersburg for dinner at the Nicholas Palace. This was grand and very memorable for me as it was my birthday. However, we were all disappointed to dine in a palace where all the waiters and attendants were in period costume reminiscent of the past. We also had the chance to feel Russian during the evening watching a folkloric show experiencing the history, spirit and tradition of the Russians. It is a must see show. We were all treated like royals in a most delightful evening.

The following day, most of us were totally exhausted so we have decided not to join the day’s tour and just kick back at the hotel for much needed relaxation. With a friend, I went on a shopping spree and arrived back to our hotel feeling refreshed and rejuvenated ready to face another challenging day.

On our last day in St. Petersburg, we were driven to Peterhof for an excursion of the summer palace. If you have been to Versailles in France, Hermitage Museum and Catherine’s Palace, entering Peterhof’s Palace is almost the same as the other three I’ve mentioned. Peter the Great visited Versailles and when he got home, he had ideas for his summer palace which was under construction and renovation that time. It was well worth the visit as the beautiful palace, park and fountains are breathtakingly beautiful.

Our tour to Russia is nearing its end. Again, we woke up early to catch the train to Moscow. We got to Moscow in the afternoon and part of the tour was the visit to Bolshoi Theatre. We tried to get tickets to watch the ballet but it was all sold out. We did not anticipate that we would be getting a much better deal. The manager of the theatre is a friend of our guide so we were allowed to enter the premises with an official guide and lucky to have watched the rehearsal of the show for that night and appreciate the grandeur of the Bolshoi Theatre. That to me was a real treat. 

The day has come that we had to leave Russia. Despite the strenuous trip, we had good and fun memories of the country. We have seen famous landmarks and works of art that we may never see again.

До свидания и спасибо россия! 

Goodbye and thank you, Russia!

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