The Season, the Snow, the Singing: a winter visit to Russia is full of pluses.
Imagine surviving a the Christmas pressue of the western Chrismas of 25 December, then celebrating Russian New Year, with snow, sleigh-bells and vodka,all thanks to the old Julian calendar still used by the Orthodox Church. New Year is celebrated in the style we celebrate Christmas. Details about Russian New year. The Orthodox Christmas is on 7 January and is more based on relgious observance. New Year is where there are the trees, lights and characters from folklore. Most churches and cathedrals in Russia are now ‘working’ again, so you can slip into any one of the services to hear the superb chanting, as candlelight catches the gold of the icons. There are no seats, which make it quite easy to sneak out again when you want to.
In summer, most Russian dance and opera companies are on tour, which means that many theatres are closed, or offering back-up shows. The frosty nights of winter, though, bring out the stars of stage and sky. On the way to your evening’s entertainment the snowy streets will magic your thoughts back to another century - as will the tiers of boxes in the ornate theatre, and the buffets serving caviar and champagne at interval.
Three days in Moscow, plus one in Novgorod, and three more in St Petersburg, will be the best New Year present (remember this is when Russians exchange gifts) you can possibly give anyone, especially yourself.
You are met at the airport and transferred to your hotel. Balance of day free to recover and perhaps explore the area around your hotel by foot. Depending upon the arrival time of your flight some sightseeing from Day 2 could be moved to the afternoon of Day 1.
DAY 2: 30 Dec Moscow
After breakfast you are out for your first taste of Moscow, getting the feel of this exotic and historic city by walking around Red Square, checking the length of the queue outside Lenin’s Tomb, shopping in the legendary department store, GUM, and stepping respectfully inside the many-faceted, ‘working’ Kazan Cathedal.at the corner of the Square. These days you can also enter the most famous sight in Moscow, St Basil’s Cathedral, (not ‘working’), but with an interior as intricately painted as its amazing onion domes. And we’ll also go through the gates of the Kremlin walls, to see - not the KGB - but four ancient cathedrals, five magnificent palaces, and the fascinating treasures housed in what was once the armoury.
Although it gets dark early, the street-lights come on and the footpaths throng with Muscovites going about their business-as-usual. In any case, the fabulous Bolshoi opens at 7pm, so there’s only just enough time to change for the show – opera or ballet - whatever’s offering, it will be superb. We can book tickets in advance if you wish - optional cost.
DAY 3: 31st Dec Moscow
Next morning we make an excursion to the nearby Novodevichy Convent, founded in 1524, inside whose walls are the Smolensk Cathedral, the Church of the Dormition, a museum, and a fascinating cemetery where many Russian greats (Chekhov, Khrushchev), and a few foreign ones, are buried. Hunting the headstone is a great way of doing Russian history. There’s also a lake with swans, said to have inspired Tchaikovsky’s ballet music, and across which the view of golden domes inside the convent is magical. We might eat lunch at the nearby Georgian restaurant U Pirosmani, which displays work by local artists; or more quickly at the Kafe Arena, cheaper and with a long list of zakuski (hors d’oeuvres – the best part of any Russian meal).
As the afternoon closes in, there are plenty of cultural activities vying for our attention. A visit to a nice warm art gallery is an attractive idea, the most famous being the Tretyakov, with its incredible collection of Russian art, particularly the magnificent icons. Although it is close by, getting there will take us south across the historic Moscow River, with great views of the city.
Evening should see you wandering the centre of Moscow culminating in you attending Red Square for the magnificent fire work display that heralds the Russian New year.(B)
DAY 4: 01 Jan Moscow - Novgorod
Your last morning in Moscow must include a walk down the Old Arbat, a famous street that’s now a mall. You can buy real art or cute souvenirs, have your portrait drawn, listen to the street musicians, check the prices in a supermarket or, if necessary, take refuge in a Russian McDonalds...a startling contrast to the beautiful 19c houses that line the Arbat, including one where Pushkin briefly had a flat.
On your last afternoon you must ride the Metro! With the very clear map and a ten-cent token, you’ll go down the longest escalators you’ve ever seen, and gaze in awe at underground stations like secular cathedrals, decorated with mosaics and lit by ornate chandeliers, while trains rush in and out of the station every few minutes. The first and oldest line (now much extended) is also the most palatial, worth jumping on and off the train at several stations.
That night there’s an overnight train to Novgorod, inviting you to sleep in a comfortable compartment en route for St Petersburg, so the evening should be devoted to dining, perhaps in another Georgian restaurant, where the delicious cuisine meets the Middle East halfway, and demands to be accompanied by Georgia’s own excellent wine; or, if you prefer traditional Russian, going back to the long-established Praga, on the Arbat. (B,D; overnight train)
DAY 5: 02 Jan NOVGOROD,
Why Novgorod, you ask? Because it is one of the earliest Russian cities (the names means Newtown) with a long, fascinating and democratic (!) history, founded long before Moscow or St Petersburg. Its diverse and beautiful architecture - its Kremlin, cathedrals and Court - are all within walking distance, divided by a river that you cross on a causeway.
For dinner you might try the co-operative Kafe Karusel, near the amusement park, because it specialises in mushrooms, the great love of all Russians, and also shashlyk.
DAY 6: 03 Jan NOVGOROD - ST PETERSBURG,
From Novgorod it’s only three hours by bus through a magical, snow-covered countryside to St Petersburg. After booking in and eating a quick lunch, we get an unforgettable impression of Peter’s eighteenth century city, this first afternoon, by walking around the area where the main drag, the Nevsky Prospekt, meets the Neva river. Within a small compass you can identify the slender golden spire (a useful landmark) of the Admiralty building, stand at the foot of the legendary statue of Peter as The Bronze Horseman, gasp at the beauty and immensity of the Winter Palace, and also take in the Yusupov Palace, where they tried to kill Rasputin, on your way to the great dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral with its green malachite columns. It can all be done before another 7pm start, this time at the Mariinsky Theatre, home of the famous Kirov Ballet, in Theatre Square. Again we can book tickets(B)
DAY 7: 04 Jan ST PETERSBURG
After breakfast time for Peterhof, the amazing collection of palaces (like several Versailles), parks, cascades and fountains that Peter the Great built 20 km west of his city, overlooking the Gulf of Finland. The gold, the parquetry, the chandeliers, the furnishings, the sheer magnificence of everything, inside and out, will take your breath away.
Lingering as long a possible at Peterhof, we’ve only time to eat dinner when we get back, so perhaps for something different we could try the Uzbekistan food of the 1001 Nights, near the Hermitage. (B)
DAY 8: 05 Jan ST PETERSBURG
Finally, you must spend your last day in the Hermitage, the vast museum and gallery that Catherine the Great built in the Winter Palace to house her ever-growing collection of Russian and world art. You will only scratch the surface of what is there – eg, more Impressionists than there are in Paris – but you will leave with memories to enrich you forever.
It’s a good idea to take a snack from the breakfast table at the hotel rather than eat hot dogs and hamburgers at the Hermitage café, but by five you’ll be hungry and tired, so head for the nearby Russkie Blini which sells delicious stuffed pancakes at very reasonable prices. It closes early, though which just leaves us enough time to pack and have a last drink with the friends we’ve shared this fabulous week with. (B)
DAY 9: 06 Jan ST PETERSBURG
Sadly, it’s off to the airport, or the railway station for those continuing on a winterland adventure. However, you are consoled by the realisation that you have seen Russia when it is more its essential self than at any other time of the year, as its beloved poet Pushkin insisted in Eugene Onegin:
Winter!...The landowner, enchanted,
Breaks a new passage with his sleigh...
Russia is definitely different, but that’s the attraction. Your time here will help you feel the depth of this difference, bringing to life the evolution of a country marked by a borrowed alphabet and an imposed religion, serfdom, illiteracy, a series of despotic tsars, a crippling censorship, the tyranny of distance, a love-hate relationship with the West, the shifting of the capital from Moscow to St Petersburg, a revolution that shook the world, and seventy years of a totalitarian regime.
And Russia now? Is she reverting to an anti-democratic autocracy? If so, why? What are her relations with the EU, the USA, Asia? And why is St Petersburg so vastly different from Moscow? In the future, will we be hugged or crushed by the Russian bear? Come and find out, stirred as you’ve never been before by this winter wonderland.
AU$3586 per person twin share.