We are a mature American couple, retired, experienced travelers who love to travel and see the world. Our idea of travel is to alternatively splurge and budget as we go. We enjoy nice hotels, apartments, villa rentals, and great Italian food, but we often use private home rentals, and 3-star hotels when possible. We love to travel independently but do hire private guides now and then. My passion for travel means that I enjoy the planning stages of travel and often research a place to the point that it usually pays dividends. By learning a dollop of words and phrases of countries we visit, it generally opens doors for us.
Before I write about our trip, I want to express my gratitude to all those who shared their travel experiences, information and support during my planning stages of our 18-day trip to Russia. I worried so much from how the Visa application process worked, tried to learn the Cyrillic alphabet, researched guide services, events that we hoped to attend, transportation (via train) logistics, and where and what to eat. But, thanks to all who shared their travel experiences here at TA, as well as the “experts” at TA such as Svetakoshka from St. Petersburg, and others—your inputs contributed greatly to making our trip highly successful. As DrDebi previously stated, it was not at all as scary as we imagined. However, Moscow was a little more difficult than St. Petersburg due to the lack of interaction with the people and lack of English signs. St. Petersburg was much more people-friendly, and English signs were welcomed.
Our 2-month-plus trip included Northern Italy and Tuscany, after our first 18 days in June in Russia, but for now I will write only about Russia. Perhaps I can share our Italian adventure another time.
The Moscow portion (7 nights) was submitted under the Moscow Forum. Below follows the remaining 11 nights in St. Petersburg.
7 June 2012: After taking the 1:30 pm Sapsan train from Moscow’s Leningradsky Rail Terminal, we arrived at St. Petersburg’s Moskovsky Rail Terminal sometime before 6:00 pm. We were met at the train station by our apartment-arranged taxi service to take us to our apartment rental on Nevsky Prospect. This rental was made online with “Nevsky64Apartments by Oksana’s LTD”. Our Apartment 7 was a large Studio on the third floor with great views up and down Nevsky Prospect, across from Anichkov's Palace and near Gostiny Dvor. We were met by the very friendly and professional staff from Oksana for our registration and orientation. BTW, both apartments in Moscow & St. Petersburg offered free Wi-Fi. After settling in we walked up and down Nevsky Prospect to find the suggested eating places for dinner, which I can’t recall their names now.
On our first morning we were met by private guide Natalya German-Tsarkova from “Original-Tours.com” for a 4-day private guide of St. Petersburg. She was a fantastic guide. First, Natalya drove us in her SUV for a highlight city tour of St. Petersburg, including inside visits to Peter & Paul Fortress, Peter & Paul Cathedral, and St. Isaac’s Cathedral. After lunch (our treat) she took us on a tour of the Yusupov Palace (this is where Rasputin was murdered in the basement of this palace).
NOTE: By having a private guide, this allowed us to visit some rooms where individual travelers are not allowed, and it helped when there were long lines to enter (other palaces) where we were always taken to the front of the line. It did open doors for us and made it so nice to be told the history of what we were seeing. We were so pleased with Natalya, a history and art major graduate, previously a model, now a wife, mother, and a great private guide. She is coming to visit us in America soon and we want desperately to give her, in return, a quick glimpse of our American life.
Next morning we were taken to the Hermitage Museum and spent 6-7 hours there. What a huge place! It’s like the Vatican, Louvre and Versailles ALL IN ONE! It actually is made up of six different buildings with the State Hermitage Museum being the main draw. We also saw the Gold Room (extra). Absolutely amazing! Loved, loved, loved the Hermitage! After a while we stopped taking photos as it was overwhelming with so much to see. Later that evening, we walked one block down to the elegant Kupetz Eliseevs Food Hall—an elite grocery store from 1902 with beautiful interior and wonderful individual food departments such as the French bakery section, caviar, various ham section, various cheese section, and the beautifully displayed confectionery and home-made patisserie sections. I made a point of stopping by each evening to buy our Almond Croissants for the next morning’s breakfast—simply yummy!
On our third day with Natalya, she drove us to Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin. What a wonderful summer palace! What grandeur! The Amber Room is a must inclusion to your tour. Simply breathtaking! The whole place! Note: Photos are allowed at the palace, but not allowed inside the Amber Room. We were allowed to take photos from the doorway on entering or leaving the Amber Room. Wish I could share our photos with you. Afterward, before going on to Pavlovsk we stopped for lunch at Podvorye—a Russian log house restaurant with “traditional” Russian food. It was huge and mainly meant for tourists, but nice nonetheless. We ate upstairs where it was quieter. Our guide ordered a very nice (but costly) lunch for us and, again, our treat. After lunch we went on to visit the Palace of Pavlovsk with its immense grounds and gardens. We only saw them from a distance, as we were too tired to continue on. The palace, however, was smaller compared to Catherine’s Palace, and more homey but lovely. On our way home, Natalya recommended we dine at the Russian Vodka Restaurant and Museum in town, which we did a week later and will tell you more about that later on.
On our fourth and last day with Natalya, she drove us to our much anticipated Peterhof. But first, she stopped at a Monument and Memorial to the Fallen during the siege of Leningrad (1941-1945) during the Russian-German conflict (also known as the Great Patriotic War). It was a very moving memorial, underground, with video of the struggles of people fighting in freezing snow, hungry, with many countrymen dying from starvation and disease. Here Natalya showed us her patriotic views of the struggles her people endured.
About 30 minutes later we arrived at Peterhof—OMG! We first saw the grand palace before the 11:00 fountains started. Then at precisely 11:00 am, we were in place for the “must-take” photo of the Grand Cascade and canal, all the way down to the Gulf of Finland. Note: No photos are allowed inside Peterhof. After touring the palace, we walked the gardens with its many beautiful fountains and statues. We spent most of the day here and thoroughly enjoyed the gardens. After the gardens Natalya took us to a late lunch at an Uzbekistan restaurant on our way home—very good food and nice outdoor setting. It was time to say goodbye to Natalya. We invited her to come visit us anytime she might be in California, and she will be coming soon!
Now we were on our own and enjoyed strolling Nevsky Prospect, stopping for coffee and snacks at the Singer building; visited the Kazan Cathedral and Christ the Savior on the Spilled Blood Cathedral, and people-watching opportunities. Along our sightseeing walks we also saw the Golden Winged Griffins holding the Suspension Bank Bridge. One other interesting church (under restoration but open) was the Trinity (Izmailovsky) Cathedral. This cathedral honored victory in the Russo-Turkish war with a memorial column outside made with 140? trophy cannon barrels used during this war. No photos were allowed inside, but it was beautiful with its dark blue onion domes with gold stars and that unusual memorial column.
We attended a ballet at the Mikhailovsky, and saw Giselle at the beautiful Mariinsky. Before the ballet at the Mariinsky, we had a great late lunch/early dinner at a Georgian restaurant just a few blocks near the Mariinsky and a short block from the beautiful blue and white Naval Cathedral of St. Nicholas.
(One Note of Caution: We took Bus 31 or 33 from Nevsky Prospect to the Mariinsky, and as we ran to board the bus, a local rider noticed that as we boarded, two other men entered behind us and cased us out. She worried that we might have been targeted for pick-pocketing, but since we immediately sat, unknowingly, in the ticket conductor’s seat next to the door, they immediately moved on as the conductor told us to move.This was told to us AFTER we exited the bus by the local rider who sat next to us and got off with us, and reminded us to be aware. We thanked her for her graciousness. Remember to always be aware of your surroundings at all times!)
On our last day in St. Petersburg, we finally made it to the Russian Vodka Restaurant and Museum for lunch. It was almost empty when we were there, but has been visited by many dignitaries in the past. The museum portion was small and only in Russian, and the restaurant was nice. Our first drink was Kvass, a fermented rye bread, low alcohol drink, also known as "Russian cola" drink, and used as a starter. We then had a sampler each of 3 different shots of vodka (my husband had all 6) plus one extra special shot.This was served with dark bread with four different toppings, including pickled herring and onions, one with just lard on bread, another with smoked salmon, and one with white fish (I think). My husband enjoyed all 8 shots and we laughed at the lard serving. Then we enjoyed our lunch of soup, followed by beef Stroganoff—which was actually very good. This was then followed by a dessert. We then moved to the vodka sampling room and had another 3 shots each of more vodka. What an afternoon we had—followed by a long nap! Thank goodness we did not have to drive. We took the bus to the restaurant (I believe it was 31 or 33) from our apartment and then took it back. This time very aware of who was traveling with us!
Although this was not really our last day, we did leave St. Petersburg for two nights and returned back to our apartment on the third day. We took a little extravagant excursion, but worth every penny and minute of it.This entailed an overnight train with a package tour from Nordic Travel of Petrozavodsk to go visit Kizhi Island—an open-air UNESCO World Heritage Site museum of 14th, 17th and 18th century wooden churches. What a fantastic little island on Lake Onega.This was arranged online from home through Konstantin from Nordic Travel. The tour included a roundtrip 9-hour overnight train (1st class sleeper with 2 beds) to Petrozavodsk leaving St. Petersburg from Ladozhsky train terminal at 10 pm, arriving Petrozavodsk at 6:50 am next morning. Konstantin recommended a place for breakfast on arrival (Café Parizhanka) and then we slowly walked down to the lakeside to meet him at 10 am for a one-hour hydrofoil ride (included) to Kizhi Island where we were met by a private guide. If you get a chance, do go see these beautifully no-nail, no paint, wooden-dowel constructed wooden churches with a small village life offerings to see how the people lived in the old days. Utterly amazing! At home I had come across a website that showed these churches through a professional photographer’s view during each season, and the photography was amazing! This made me more eager to go find them. We were even sung to by three priests at one of the small churches and loved it. After 4 hours there with the guide, we took the hydrofoil back to Petrozavodsk where we had our dinner and then took the 10:00 pm train back to St. Petersburg, arriving next morning at 7:00 am. Do go see them if you get a chance!
After Kizhi Island we relaxed and walked and walked the city of St. Petersburg for 3 more days and thoroughly enjoyed the no-schedule, people-watching, lazy days where we saw many, many Russian brides in parks, churches, and on boats in the canals. My other passion is to photograph brides from around the world, so this was a special treat for me in that we saw at least two dozen brides and I was able to take their photographs (with their permission, of course).
This was truly a memorable trip for us and I encourage people to just go do it! Russia is not at all scary! The people of St. Petersburg were so friendly, smiling, and helpful, and they had probably the best looking ladies of all places we have been to. Of course, my husband kept telling his friends that he was going to look for Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova. His buddies kept telling him, “but Maria lives here near you in California!” Whatever!
To All, thanks again and happy travels! Vilma & Larry