After 4 years of learning Russian as a hobby and as part of my personal development, I gradually cultivated an affinity for the Russian culture. Besides grammar rules and new vocabulary, I was learning about some peculiarities and general information about Russia such as: the reason that Red Square is called that way, the geographical meaning of the golden ring (Золотое кольцо), and the correct name of the traditional nesting dolls, which by the way is Matryoshka and not Papushka as most Cypriots think. My relation with the Russian language gave me the desire to visit the country and experience from close the culture and the locals. I was looking for long time for an opportunity to travel to Russia and I finally found it.
It was Christmas Eve in Russia, prior midnight 06 of January 2016, when I landed in Saint Petersburg. Before disembarking from the plane, I eagerly looked through the window and I noticed that the fresh white snow was covering the surroundings. That picture instantly stimulated a pleasant feeling inside me because I realized that at this trip I was going to experience for the first white Christmas! I walked towards the exit door of the airport and I suddenly felt the freezing cold coming in. When the door opened and I stepped out, the cold was hitting on me like a bomb. The atmosphere out there made me feel that I was playing on the last scene of Tarantino’s movie Kill Bill volume 1… The foggy streets were empty and the temperature was -28 °C. I just felt numb for a moment. The temperature was +17 °C when I left from sunny Cyprus, and now few hours later I was standing there experiencing a shock of 45 °C. That was the only moment that I regretted going to Russia during winter. With no other hesitations I took a taxi and I went straight to the hotel, checked in and took a rest.
Next morning, I woke up, went for breakfast, and started scheduling my day ahead. I was expecting my friend Nick to arrive in the afternoon, so I had plenty of time for some solo exploration of the city. With no second thought, I ordered my Uber to Hermitage Museum. As soon as I stepped in, it was like I traveled back in time during the Russian Emperors’ era. I was lost in the numerous luxurious ballrooms decorated with red carpets, impressive and priceless old paintings, golden details on the walls, and detailed golden and silver artifacts. After 4 hours of enjoying every piece of art, my mind was satisfied but my body was exhausted. I went back to the hotel and took a nap to recharge my batteries and get to the mood for the party that was following in the evening. Couple of hours later, I heard noise from the corridor and the door opened. I woke up, my friend Nick had just arrived from Thessaloniki, Greece. The last time we saw each other was almost a year ago in Bucharest, so you imagine that we had lot to discuss and catch up.
One of the best things about the hotel we were staying was the sky bar on the 18th floor from where we could enjoy a panoramic view of St. Petersburg. The party was taking place at the sky bar, and we were thrilled to meet there our friends coming from all around Europe. Needless to say that I was drinking vodka shots all night long, since I wanted to get more into the Russian mood! The party was amazing, we had such a great time and on top of that the spectacular night view of St. Petersburg dressed in white was just priceless.
Late morning, I woke up with a light hangover but nothing could have stopped me from exploring the city more. Starting from walking on the frozen Neva river, visiting St Isaac’s cathedral and the architectural masterpiece of the Spilled Blood church, strolling along the beautifully decorated and lively Nevsky Prospekt, and stopping at the famous landmark House of Books (Дом книги) – all these sightseeings justify the fact that St. Petersburg is known as the cultural capital of Russia. Every single part of the city looked like a scene from a movie taking place in the era of Tsars. In the meantime, outside it was freezing and after a bit of walking in the streets I couldn’t feel my feet despite the fact that I was wearing my Koalabi boots and a thermal pair of socks. As a result, we were frequently taking breaks to get indoor and enjoy a cup of coffee or tea and some desserts in order to get warm, regain power, and continue exploring the city.
After many hours of enjoying most of the city center, we returned back to the hotel for some relaxation. Another party with lot of vodka and fun was waiting for us in the royal city.
The following day, I couldn’t wait to wake up and get ready since we planned to go to the morning show of Swan Lake at Mikhailovsky Theater. As soon as we reached the theater my eager grew even more. We entered the theater and the polite usher escorted us to the seats at the front lines. I was very amazed by the interior of the theater. The atmosphere was once more like stepping back in time during the emperors’ period where only privileged people were able to enjoy ballet in a rich architectural surrounding with red carpets, golden details on the walls, long red velvet curtains, mirrors, crystal chandeliers, and unique ceiling murals.
The bell rang, the lights were turned down, and the orchestra started playing. The sound of the violins was mesmerizing, vibrating my whole body. The combination of the magnificent composition of Tchaikovsky, the visual performance of the ballet, the professional experience of the orchestra, the great props on the stage, and the impressive interior of the theater, made me shiver! Indeed, it was a world–class ballet performance that made me feel emotionally richer. I would be willing to pay double in order to enjoy again a ballet with similar standards.
At that night we were invited at a private gala dinner, so it was a must to dress up. The gala turned to be amazing and successful: great people, quality food and champagne, live performances, lot of dancing, and magnificent fireworks lighting up the sky of St. Petersburg.
I decided to enjoy my last day at St. Petersburg by visiting with some friends the famous Peterhof palace. Peterhof is located at the suburban area of St. Petersburg, it used to be the summer palace of Peter the Great and it is one of the most luxurious imperial estates. After 45 minutes taxi ride from the city center we finally reached our destination. We entered the gate of the palace and instantly was like we were teleported in the age of Peter the Great. The magnificent gardens which were covered in snow along with the exquisite architecture of the palace gave us the impression that we were living in a fairy tale.
We walked to the back side of the palace and we reached the renowned fountains of Peterhorf. The scenery cannot be precisely described with words. Everything was covered with fresh white snow. Below the grand palace there are cascades with an astonishing fountain and golden statues which are all linked with a straight canal reaching towards the Gulf of Finland. Unfortunately the fountains are not operating in winter because of the severe cold and snow. However, the view was still breathtaking. It was getting darker and colder but since I was there, I wanted to walk the path from the grand palace all the way down to the Gulf of Finland. It was deserted, silent and foggy. The only sound you could hear was the wind whispering through the tall trees on both sides of the canal. It was the perfect scene for a horror movie! Halfway, I started feeling a bit uncomfortable because of the deserted environment; I was alone out there while my friends were admiring the interior of the palace. However, something was pushing me forward to reach the end of the path at the banks of the Baltic Sea. Finally, I found the sea. Well, not exactly because the whole sea was turned into ice. I paused for couple of minutes, observed the stunning landscape, and then rushed back to the palace since it was almost dark and I was feeling even colder.
At night we wanted to experience the culinary art of the traditional Russian cuisine. My friend Veronica, who is loyal reader of Lonely Planet (traveling guide books), made a reservation for five at Sadko restaurant. The restaurant has a warm atmosphere with welcoming and friendly service. The interior is a combination of Russian tradition and modern European style. In details, the restaurant is decorated with rows of Russian folk flowers on the dark walls, modern bright colored chandeliers, and tableware decorated with the same folklore flowers.
We tasted as much dishes as possible, ranging from various starters (закуски) to soups such as salmon caviar with blini and sour cream, Russian vinaigrette salad, mushroom julienne in pancake, and borscht soup with sour cream. For main, I ordered beef Strogonov with chanterelle sauce and potato. The food was tasty. We were so full by the end of the dinner that we only ordered sorbet ice cream for dessert. Having dinner at Sadko restaurant was the cherry on the cake and a good way to complete our visit at the magical city of Peter the Great. Around midnight, we had to say goodbye to Saint Petersburg and take the overnight train to Moscow to “breathe” the air of the capital.
We all gathered at the Moskovsky railway station and after a while we boarded the train. From the very first minute I stepped in the carriage, I felt that something odd was going on… It was so packed with people, full of bunks, and had a narrow aisle. It was noisy with no privacy, I was suffocating! I have never seen before such a type of carriage. Because of budget constraints, the organizers of the trip booked for us third class train tickets, known as ‘platskart’ in Russian. Being a person who values comfort more that economy and who has some obsession with hygiene, I had a slight panic attacked, but I quickly realized that I had no other option than to ‘survive’ from this situation, so I shortly calmed down and said to myself: you need to see this as an adventure and a new experience.
I settled down in my berth and tried to fall asleep as soon as possible in order to forget about the uncomfortable situation, the unpleasant smell, and the tight space in the carriage. I was wishing that the next 8 hours and the 800 km ahead to pass as quickly as possible. During the night, I could feel the freezing cold slightly coming through the sides of the window behind my berth. I could not complain since the breeze was a drop of freshness and relief from the bad smell inside the carriage.
While I was trying to fall asleep, I was thinking that my consolation was the fact that after a week I could tell to my friends back home for my adventure. I was sure that they wouldn’t believe me, that’s why I took the appropriate evidence to convince them; a selfie hanging out of my berth having as background the mess that was taking place within the carriage. Travelling with the ‘platskart’ was the most memorable experience I had from my trip to Russia. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone unless you would want to know the feeling of being packed like sardines in a can. Anyway, after 8 hours of travelling, the time has come. The train arrived in Moscow and we were excited to experience the Russian capital for the next two days!
– A. Yemenaris
Where to stay:
If you cannot afford five star luxurious accommodation, then AZIMUT Hotel Saint Petersburg ★★★★ is a value for money choice. (http://en.azimuthotels.com/Russia/azimut-hotel-saint-petersburg).
What to see:
Hermitage museum, Spilled Blood church, Nevsky Prospekt, Peterhof summer palace.
Where to eat & drink:
Sadko restaurant for traditional Russian cuisine (http://www.sadko-rst.ru/eng/), Sky bar on the roof top of Azimut hotel for an amazing panoramic view of the city.
What not to miss:
Ballet at Mariinsky or Mikhailovsky theater, taste the traditional borscht soup.