A private guided tour for Autumn
Moscow is the country's historic centre. Inside the Kremlin walls we are thrilled by golden-domed cathedrals and the treasures of the Armoury; outside its walls we will see the art in the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum and the Tretyakov Gallery, stroll through famous areas such as Red Square, the Arbat, and visit the house in which Leo Tolstoy resided when he was in town.
West of Moscow, on the famous Golden Ring, lies Suzdal, an Old Russian city of wooden houses with intricately decorated fretwork, ancient white churches and an historic monastery. On the way we pass through the equally historic, heritage town of Vladimir, surrounded by forests glowing with autumn colours and Russia’s favourite treat - mushrooms!
Then it is north to St Petersburg, built on the Gulf of Finland in 1703 by Peter the Great, as his gateway to Europe. Here we make time for an unhurried exploration of the Hermitage Museum, expeditions to all three of the fabulous summer palaces outside the city, and visits to the major cultural sites of this elegant city, which is intersected by so many charming waterways the Russians call it The Venice of the North.
Russia in September still enjoys plenty of sunshine and lovely long twilights, which urge you to fill every minute revelling in the exotic glories of historic Moscow, the neo-classic façades of elegant St Petersburg and the ancient stone churches of the Golden Ring. In these cities tsars ruled, architecture flowered, Russian Orthodoxy sang the liturgy and painted icons, and the world's greatest communist state was born and broken. Today, religion thrives again alongside a managed democracy and a new world of business and global integration. Yet, it is fair to say that Russia is still ‘different’, in ways that only those who go there will ever understand.
Moscow (days 1-7)
Arrive Moscow. We transfer to our Hotel, where we will be staying for 7 nights. Balance of day free to recover. (D)
Here we are, at the heart of old Moscow, inside what was originally a kremle, the wooden palisade around a village - which is why every old city has its own ‘Kremlin’. Moscow’s Kremlin existed well before the first Tsar, and centuries ahead of the KGB. Inside its walls are three splendid cathedrals, a belltower with the huge Tsar’s Bell at its foot, and four palaces full of treasures, most of which you can visit.
Outside the Kremlin’s towering red walls lies Red Square, which holds Lenin’s Tomb, St Basil’s, and the ‘Terrible Place’ (Strashnoe Mesto) where the architect’s eyes were put out lest he build anything comparable to that frenzy of colourful onion domes. A good antidote to such savagery is a shopping spree in nearby GUM, the ex-Soviet department store that now sells Prada rather than Pravda, and every other designer name.
This overwhelming first day on Russian soil ends with a typical Russian dinner, where the zakuski (starters) are so delicious they make a main course redundant. Caviar, pickled mushrooms, smoked herring, stuffed eggs and various kinds of sausage are washed down with vodka or champagne. (B,D)
Day 3Just as the growing city expanded in concentric circles outside the Kremlin, so our own explorations also spread out. A bus trip around the city, focussing on each of the ‘Seven Sisters’ – Stalin’s monstrous wedding-cake edifices – will show us a Soviet Moscow, including the Moscow State University, which also happens to have a marvellous view.
Then there’s a link to the past again with a visit to Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery, where so many famous Russians are buried; and more shopping, this time at Ismailovsky market, a great place to see and buy arts and crafts. (B, D)
Next morning’s exploration is exciting but easy, as we ride the Metro, gasping at the brilliance of its 13 original stations, built of marble, gold, glass and mosaics, and lit by spectacular chandeliers (Stalin’s notion of showing how much he cared for his people...)
For your afternoon you will be taken to what is now a suburb, but used to be a special Dacha Village for writers.
Peredelkinno is a collection of houses where past and present literary names had, or do live. In Soviet times those that became famous within Russia and beyond could be rewarded with a country Dacha. Often these Dacha Villages were designated to be used by people who had a particular skill. Perelkinno became the Literary Village. Over time the village became an outer suburb of Moscow, but still keeps its green treed nature. The village is 25 min from Kievsky train station in Moscow. The two main features are the house of Boris Pasternak (he of Dr Zhivargo fame) and the Chukovsky museum. This was the house of Kornei Chukovsky the most famous Russian Children's writer ( like R Dhal or Enid Blyton). (B)Day 5
Let’s go to Tolstoy’s own Moscow house, at 21 Leo Tolstoy Street, and see how the great man lived when he came to town. At the south end of his street there’s another treat, the exquisite Church of St Nicholas of the Weavers, as colourful as St Basils, but smaller and more approachable.
The Tolstoy theme continues in an elegant street called Prechistenka Boulevard (formerly Kropotkinsky – all the former Soviet names have been changed), which is lined with beautiful classical mansions built after Moscow was deliberately set on fire in 1812. Several are now museums: no. 11 houses Tolstoy’s manuscripts and letters, no. 12, Pushkin’s. No. 19-21 is the Russian Academy of Art, where we can check out the current exhibition.
We’ll also have a look (from the outside only) at ‘the other White House’, the offices of the Prime Minister and national government. (B,D)
Today we continue the Tolstoy theme , and also see a typical estate and country house, as we travel out of Moscow to Yasnaya Polyana, where the great writer preferred to spend his time, living there with wife Sonya, thirteen children and many servants. (He did free his serfs). (B)
Suddenly, alas, it’s our last day in Moscow! We can’t leave without seeing either the Tretyakov Museum, devoted to Russian art and famous for its icon collection, or the Pushkin Museum of European art if you prefer to take in the Rubens, Rembrandts and Matisses available only in Moscow.
But the afternoon is free for you go back to whichever place you loved most. After all, you know how to use the Metro now. (B)
Between Moscow and St Petersburg: The Golden Ring (days 8-10)
Medieval Russia, rural and religious, lives on in this Golden Circle, through golden domes, fragrant incense, beautiful chanting and devote crowds. The collection of ancient towns outside Moscow take its visitors into an unimaginable past, when churches enhanced every village, and houses were made entirely of wood, using no nails. How lucky we are to spread this experience over nearly three days.
Setting out after breakfast, we stop for lunch in the ancient, UNESCO heritage declared town of Vladimir. Surrounded by thick forests and unspoilt countryside, Vladimir holds the Cathedral where Alexander Nevsky lies buried, and a spectacular Golden Gate.
We move on to overnight in Suzdal, prettily situated on the banks of the Kamenka river. (B,L,D)
In Suzdal we visit an entire wooden museum-village, not to mention two 13c cathedrals, a Kremlin, Treasury and Icon Museum. Suzdal gives us a full day’s sight-seeing steeped in Russia’s ancient past.
We leave Suzdal in the morning to return to Moscow by way of Sergei Posad, the ‘Vatican’ of Russian Orthodoxy, with numerous churches clustered around the Trinity Monastery of St Sergius. Back very briefly in Moscow for dinner, before transferring to the station to board the overnight train for the rail trip to St Petersburg. The train has comfortable four-share, soft class sleeping compartments. Upgrade to two berth is possible. (B,D)
St Petersburg (days 11-16)
We wake up to tea, early morning light, and our first thrilling glimpses of St Petersburg. In this very planned city, conceived by Peter the Great and completed in 1703, the orientation feels vertical rather than circular (as in Moscow), the city lying to either side of the famous Nevsky Prospekt, which runs straight down from the Neva river to the Moscow Station. At the top end are grouped the tall golden spire of the Admiralty (a useful landmark), the rearing statue of Peter as The Bronze Horseman, and the long, classical pale-green and white façade of the Winter Palace. What a scenario for a morning stroll!
It’s not just these famous sights that you’ll remember, though, but a whole ensemble encompassing vast squares, mirror-like canals, charming bridges and neo-classical 18c buildings designed by imported Italian architects. You’ll get a glimpse of all this, and of the layout of the city, during the half day tour. The balance of the day and evening is at leisure. (B)
Now imagine a whole day to yourself, let loose in the Hermitage, the immense palace that houses the art collections of several Tsars and Tsarinas from Peter to Elizabeth to Catherine and later – there are more Impressionists here than in Paris! More of everything in fact, so much that most of it is in store, despite the succession of huge rooms and endless galleries. You’ll walk and gawk until your legs fall off and your eyes are out on stalks in sheer, amazed delight. (B)
By now it’s time to join the locals strolling, or bustling, down the main drag of Nevsky Prospekt, , which will take you past, or into, the Kafé Literaturnoe, linked forever with the death of Pushkin after his fatal duel, the Stroganov (yes) Palace, the Kazan Cathedral (and just behind it the Bankovsky Bridge, suspended from cables emerging from the mouths of golden-winged dragons), the Grand Europe Hotel where you might like to dip into the Caviar Bar, and Gostiny Dvor, an old, arcaded department store. The exotic names and places go on and on...Can you too? Maybe you need to save some energy for the evening. The main Kirov Ballet company will probably be on tour, but the Mariinsky Theatre is so elegant it hardly matters who or what is on the stage. (B)
Out in the countryside, but not too far from Petersburg, there are so many sumptuous palaces you have to make a conscious choice. Let’s try Pushkin (the place not the poet, though he studied there as a boy), where the gorgeous baroque Catherine Palace (where you’ll find the famous Amber Room, the Green Dining-room, the Blue Drawing-room...) is named after Peter the Great’s second wife (the first wife having been immured in a convent); and also Pavlovsk, whose parks, woodland, rivers, lakes, statues, avenues and little temples make it one of the most exquisite royal estates in the whole of Russia.
Only a concert in the Big Hall of the Philharmonia could top off such a day of visual splendour. (B,L,D)
And finally, outdoing everything else, the pièce de résistance that’s at its best in summer, when the fountains leap and the cascades tumble, is the triumphal personal indulgence of Peter the Great, the series of palaces and waterways called Peterhof, that he built in order to look out over the Gulf of Finland. Nothing could be more grandiose, more opulent, or more breathtakingly magnificent.
When you at last tear yourself away from all that splendour to go back to the city, you will find yourself, on this last night in St Petersburg, haunted by the man who founded it, stunned by his attainments and triumphs, and horrified, if you know your history, by his cruelty and lust for power. But never will you forget either him or what he created. (B)
One last precious morning before you board the plane. Why not drift along the canals in a river-boat, gliding past those pastel coloured façades, ducking under those charming bridges, holding in your mind all the splendid sights that you have made your own during your five days of summer light in this exquisite city? (B)
Then it’s out to the airport, and dosvidanie, Peterburg!
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