Back a week and off again! This time, to Russia.
We left at 6.30am and just after 7am we were at Heathrow. I spotted on a notice board that we had to get our visas checked before going through security – it didn’t mention that when I checked in online. And I also realised I had got the plan time wrong by an hour. Our flight was at 8.45am. Not 9.45am as I thought (even though I checked in online at 8.45am yesterday….)
I have wanted to visit Russia for years. And even had a plan about 6 years ago…! But never quite made it.
Free food on the plane, rather unexpected since British airways no longer offer food on short flights. A roll with hummus and tomato. Was pretty good!
The flight took 4 hours and we landed in Moscow just after 2pm (2 hours ahead of England). Flying over lots of nothingness. Some brown forested areas (no leaves on the trees here!). Some small villages and towns, houses like coloured wooden sheds, but each town has an elaborate church.
To come to Russia you need a visa. We had gone through that palava a few months ago. The application forms and documents required just to get the visas took me a good couple of days to prepare.
We got directed to the diplomatic lane – random. Maybe they were trying to balance out the queues. As each person took ages. Looking at the picture page, scanning it. Looking at the visa page. Using a magnifying glass. Typing things. Making you sign a piece of paper. And then letting you through. Never stood so long at a passport control! But she was really nice and stamped on the visa, rather than using one of my very final passport pages.
By the time we made it out of the airport, we had been on the ground nearly an hour. And made our way over to the train station – which was just outside the airport terminal. We made the 3pm train. Which left perfectly on time. 43 minutes to Moscow city.
There wasn’t much to see from the train. A power station. Some train depots. Lots of nothingness. It was raining by the time we reached the train station in the city. And it was very old!
Onto the metro – we needed to buy a ticket. I had read instructions online, for how to use the Moscow metro. First off, the KAACA ticket booth. A strange system for queuing and luckily we were near the front. I wanted a 20 journey ticket. Typed the number 20 into my phone and showed the woman – worked perfectly! And I got a card ticket. Through the barrier and followed the crowds down the escalator. Which was a really long escalator. Got to the bottom and suddenly we were on two platforms for the brown line. We wanted the green line. There were no signs. Maybe we came down the wrong escalators. So we went all the way back up. But up here, the signs for the green line were all pointing down. So we went all the way back down. It was crowded. We walked along the platform a bit and then saw some arrows on the ground for the green line (line 2). A bit more walking later and some more platforms! But which way to go?! One platform was called 1 and the other 2. But line 1 doesn’t go through here! There are no signs in English – I knew that before we came, so I have a dual language map. Which is fine, but I couldn’t even work out how you could tell which direction a train was going. So we decided to get on one train and see which way we went. If it wasn’t right, we could change. But it was right. And two stops later, we got off. As we needed to change lines. And again, confusion. We now wanted the red line, line 1. There were arrows. But then they disappeared. And we had a very long walk way in front of it. We decided to go for it. And it was right. Two more stops and we had arrived at our stop. But now, how to get out?! I had read that exits were generally at the ends of the platforms. One had an escalator going up, so we went with that. And daylight! We made it. As a daily user of an underground system, that was much harder than I expected.
Our place was only a couple of blocks away. Past some old concrete block buildings, mixed with some old prettier buildings. We are just off the Main Street and it’s so nice. Very modern, exposed bricks and very ‘design’. And met with free chocolate. Awesome. Had a lie down for a little while.
We headed back out to find a place for dinner. Back on the metro. And after my initial confusion, I now have the metro sussed. Follow numbers, not colours. And the random Russian words are lists of all the stations that the train calls at. Only the first one is useful. Ignore the numbers ‘1 and 2’ on the platforms, they aren’t helpful. Interchanges are marked on the floor – follow the arrows. Easy. We made it across to Trubnaya easily.
And into a park. Which looked pretty in pictures. In reality, it was muddy and there were no leaves on the trees, so it was rather dull and brown. The restaurant was in a department store. May as well have been back in England in Harvey Nichols – it was exactly the same. Same brands. Similar design. Very modern and cool. The food department was awesome – pretty fruit and vegetable displays, random tubs of coloured gloopy stuff, which turned out to be honey (seems to be a big thing here) and lots of vodka.
Dinner was great. Such a modern, ‘cool’ cafe. The menu was slightly odd. 3 pages of water (!). We got juice, vegan shakshuka, a red curry and shared a beetroot-coloured raw dessert. So good. Caught the metro home. So easy now! And popped into a pharmacy. Despite them speaking no English, it’s easy – type what you want into google translate, and show them the screen.
Friday 28 April 2017
It was a struggle to get up. The alarm went off at 9am. But that’s 7am English time. But breakfast was awesome. They had foods from various different local organic farmers. Really all I could eat was cereal (a selection of different granolas; oat and buckwheat), bread (a huge selection of fruit bread, plain breads, charcoal bread) and fruit (strawberries, raspberries and blueberries). But there was also yoghurt, different meat, cheeses, cakes and biscuits. All very fancy. I ate way too much.
And outside to explore. We decided to walk to the Red Square. It wasn’t far.
The square is huge. A massive empty space.
One side is the kremlin, the other side is a shopping mall. The cathedral at one end, and a bright red museum at the other. The mausoleum of Vladimir Lenin is also on the square. But it was closed today.
The main reason I wanted to come to Russia – to see St Basil’s Cathedral. The one with the colourful domes. It was at the far end of the square.
It was much smaller than I expected. And as it was cloudy, the colours were very dull. We sat outside for a while, looking at it. We found a spot where there were no pope left (quite a feat – and rather unusual, not sure why no one came off to the side!). It’s pretty cool.
It was expensive to go inside. 500 rubles (£6.80) per person.
Built In 1555, it was one of the oldest buildings we visited in Russia. Inside was a maze of small rooms and narrow corridors. All painted with a swirly blue pattern. It was surprising that it was such a maze. But even more surprising, that the towers and domes and totally hollow – and elaborately painted on the inside! When we came out, it started to rain. Typical.
The GUM shopping arcade lines one side of the Red Square. It is a very old fashioned style shopping centre, complete with little old fashioned stalls selling icecream. Plus all the shops – Burberry, Pravda, Hermes etc etc. We needed the toilets. There were signs. Which we followed. Up to the top floor. Then along the floor. And suddenly into a Chinese restaurant. Downstairs of the Chinese restaurant. Through the seating area. And there they were. So random!
We left the square through the Resurrection Gate – a bright red building, with two towers, both topped with bright green turrets. Everything is so colourful. I had been desperate for water all morning. And despite being unable to drink tap water, shops selling water were not obvious. Hadn’t seen a single one. But finally, spotted a MacDonald’s. And they sold bottles of water.
Next up. The Kremlin.
The red towers of the Kremlin mark the founding site of the city of Moscow, over 900 years ago.
We just missed the changing of the guard at 1pm. The tomb of the fallen soldier is flanked by two guards. We saw the crowds moving away at 1.01pm!
We already had tickets, which actually seemed pointless. As you had to go inside to exchange these for real tickets anyway. Then back up to a long walkway which, via some airport style scanning, took us within the red brick walls, through the Kutafya tower and underneath the trinity gate tower.
This tower was built in 1845 and is 80m high, the tallest tower on the kremlin walls. The kremlin area is a large open space, completely surrounded by a red brick walled perimeter. One building houses the official government building. There is the armoury – a museum full of gold and diamonds. Plus numerous churches.
Our ticket allowed us into all of the churches. We wandered around each of them. All with their white walls and gold tops. Photos generally weren’t allowed inside. And it was raining outside. We passed by Ivan’s bell tower. With a large 202 tonne bell sitting just to the side of the building, which has apparently never rung.
We left by a different exit, passing through the Alexander garden. It was still raining. For lunch, (it was now 3.30pm!) we headed to a popular vegetarian cafe, called Fresh.
The whole street was full of cool looking restaurants and shops. There were loads of options. I had a Mexican wrap – full of tofu and sweet potato, with salad. And we shared a dessert – of lime/avocado cream, with a raspberry chia goo. So good.
And just across the road, an organic shop and cafe. So awesome. I bought some cold pressed chocolate almond milk, some raw bars and a raw cake. Obsessed.
It was still raining, so we caught the metro from next to the Bolshoi theatre, only two stops back to our house. We had some tea and coffee (and free chocolates!) in the library of our house. So funny. The tea was random. I asked for peppermint. And apparently what they gave me was peppermint. But it had flowers in it. And came with a berry syrupy jam to put into it. Apparently the Russian way to drink tea.
We were too full, after our late lunch, so didn’t head back out for dinner. Just had the piece of raw cake – so good.
Saturday 29 April 2017
Breakfast was really good again. I had more of the same – granola (with my chocolate almond milk!), bread and fruit. And we headed outside.
This time. Into sunshine. Not a cloud in the sky.
We went a few stops on the metro and got off by the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. A bright white building, with gold domes.
This is a fairly recent addition to the city, only being completed in 1997, ready for Moscow’s 850th birthday. It was free to go inside. We had a quick wander around. Then we headed around the back of the church, to a bridge.
This bridge crosses the Moscow River and has great views across the city towards the kremlin.
We caught the metro again, back to red square. Just to see it in the sunshine! It was so pretty – the colours shining brightly in the sun. And it was so much busier today. The preparations for ‘Victory day’ had progressed – in addition to the seating lining the whole of one side, there were so many banners up and the sound systems were being constructed.
Touring the metro is a popular activity. So we devised our own route and hopped on! We went on three different lines and got off at most stations for a quick look. A mixture of mosaics, fancy carved roofs, coloured glass panels and arch ways. We saw tour groups on our journey! How funny.
For lunch, we tried to find a vegan cafe. But totally failed. It wasn’t where it said it wa on the map. And we couldn’t find any signs. So we just wandered along the street, past a pond, to another one. We shared a burger. And a Russian dish – ravioli, filled with spinach and tomato, which came with sweet and sour style vegetables. Really tasty.
This cafe was only a couple of blocks from our house, we had done a large loop. We got back about 3pm and had some more peppermint flower tea, and a rest before heading off to the train station.
Our train to St Petersburg was at 5.40pm, but I had read you should be there with plenty of time to spare. Presumably because it’s complicated, not in English and probably a mystery how to get there. The nearest metro was only two stops away. So that was easy. There were temporarily signs on the ground, so we followed those. Made it out of the metro and were outside by a train station. But not the right one. This one only had suburban trains. But after a bit of a wander around we spotted the one we wanted – Leningradsky.
There are actually three different train stations all together in the same place here! Scanning of bags and people to enter the train station. And we had an hour to wait. A bit of google translating (the live-photo-view through the app is awesome), it said our train was preparing to be ready. But as soon as we sat down, we had a platform number. Still just under an hour to go, but me being paranoid decided we should probably go and investigate.
More bag scanning and then onto the empty platform. I wasn’t the only over enthusiastic person, there were plenty of people already waiting. The train pulled in and after a while, they let us on. But they checked our tickets with a phone before letting us on! And randomly we were in the restaurant carriage. We still had a good half an hour to go. But the woman was already coming around taking orders for food. And there was a sign saying that our ticket included 2,000 rubles (that’s £26!) of food. What?!
Let’s go back to when I booked the tickets. It was a confusing system. You didn’t seem to be able to book directly with the Russian train company, so I used an agency (which was recommended on the seat 61 website – which is awesome for researching all foreign train journeys). There were, as far as I could see two different tickets for the ‘standard’ class. There was a £1 difference in price. So I went with the one with food included – because why not see what Russian train food is like?! So here we are, with a menu which has items costing about £2 each and £26 to spend. Each. Feeling a bit panicked, I ordered some vegetables, apple juice, dried mango and chocolate. Spending about £12 of my allowance. And it arrived almost instantly. Despite being basically microwave meals – the vegetables were tasty. We hadn’t even left yet.
But we eventually did. Exactly on time at 5.40pm. Moving out of Moscow. And into the countryside.
Past large lakes. Forests. Small villages of more small wooden huts. Children playing next to the railway line. People sitting and chatting by the railway. And deserted railway stations. The Russian girls opposite us had ordered food as well. And later in the journey ordered pancakes with caviar! Random! I was still confused about the meal allowance. And wasn’t sure why we couldn’t just use our remaining money to buy snacks to take with us. And that’s when we saw people doing exactly that. Buying 10 plus bars of Ritter chocolate.
And soon the whole carriage was doing the same. Hilarious. We ended up with, 6 bars of Ritter, a bounty, pringles, a bag of dried mango (which was expensive at £7 – and probably wasn’t an efficient use of our money, that could have been 3 bars of ritter(!)), 2 bottles of water, 2 bags of pistachios, apple juice and wine. Plus the vegetables (and pudding) that we had eaten. What a joke!
Four hours later, it was now dark and we arrived into a raining St Petersburg. After finding our way out of the train station, we decided to walk to our place. It took about 20 minutes, down the main road – Nevsky Prospeckt, which was full of shops, bars and restaurants. Despite being nearly 10pm, most of them were still open.
We found our place really easily (thank goodness for google street walking – I had sussed it out beforehand), as it was just an archway on an old building in the historic centre. And after working out how to get into the building complex, the woman met us. It’s a small apartment and was so cool! It was difficult to find somewhere to stay here which was ‘cool’ and modern. Most places were very old fashioned, or really bad value for money.
Where I stayed in Moscow: Brick Design Hotel
Where I stayed in Saint Petersburg: Kaleidoscope on Italyanskaya
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