Blog Archives: Russia


Leading Ladies: One of our own – Q & A with Katya Galitzine

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Katya Galitzine travelled to the former USSR in 1989 to learn Russian and study sculpture. St Petersburg became her home for 10 tumultuous years of political change. Katya is a descdendent of Catherine the Great and set up The Prince George Galitzine Memorial Library in 1994 in memory of her father. It is now the only Anglo-Russian library in St Petersburg, a thriving cultural centre in her grandmother’s house. She is also hosting our group tour to Russia

We asked Katya to share her thoughts on who has inspired her, her best travel advice and more…

1. What is your earliest or childhood ambition?

To be a nurse, I liked the uniform, hated the blood aspect, so not much future there. I had met Florence Nightingale’s grandson when I was about 5 and that made a big impression on me.

2. What motivates you to do what you do?

Truth and laughter.

3. Who has inspired you to do what you do?

Strangely I have been lucky enough to meet a lot of very famous, successful people who have achieved great things in their lives; some of whom I was inspired by, but then I got to know them and realised that everyone is human and we all have failings. So I think my greatest inspiration is my son, even before he existed. I wanted to do things so my children/child could be proud of me. Of course, reality is, he is not interested in my past and all the things I have done in my life at all. I’m just his Mum – but it brings me great joy to know I that I have a fund of stories to tell him, when he eventually wants to listen.

4. If your 20 year old self could see you now what would she think?

I would be most surprised at myself and my present life and most probably think what a bore I have become, but glad that I am happy.

5. in what place are you happiest?

In St Petersburg, no doubt about it – but I also really like airports and the anticipation of flying somewhere new.

6. What ambitions do you still have?

Never having been very ambitious, I have dreams instead: to see pandas in the wild, to climb Mount Kinabalu or look inside a volcano. Back home to direct a contemporary Macbeth set in modern day Russia and write more books.

7. Ambition or talent: which matters more?

I studied sculpture for 6 years with a grand master, Mikhail Anikushin – the People’s Sculptor of the Soviet Union and he drummed it into me that being an artist is 10% talent and 90% hard work.  These days people with ‘ambition’ tend to work hard, so I suppose my practical answer is ‘ambition’ – but I think ‘talent’ is more thrilling!

8. how often do you travel?

I tend to visit St Petersburg every other month, where I manage The Galitzine Memorial Library.  A project I set up with my Mother in memory of my father, George.  We are now in our 3rd decade and continue our undertaking to provide books about Russia that were printed abroad, our main field of interest has become the lost generation of Russians who were forced to emigrate during the 75 years of communism. We are a registered charity (No 1015036) and rely on donations from people interested in supporting our worthwhile cause.

9. do you consider your carbon footprint?

Yes and No. Due to everything I am involved in, I spend a lot of time travelling and Russia is very polluted, but due to the economics of the nation and its size, very little has been done to correct it.  On the flip side, due to a poorer population, most people in the cities do not have cars, do not eat meat every day, they recycle clothes and household goods and all their newspapers, cardboard and bottles, a throwback from Soviet days.  Plastic containers have only appeared in Russia in the last 25 years and they now litter the sides of roads and rubbish dumps; every time I see one, it reminds me how comparatively new capitalism is to Russia and how fast they have adopted it and all its bad habits.

I remember visiting Lake Baikal about 10 years ago at the end of the summer and seeing mounds of rubbish piled up against this beautiful clear lake, it was quite shocking; the guide who was with us, blithely told me not to worry – because Greenpeace volunteers come at the end of the season and clear it up for them!

I think ‘Time’ these days is the enemy of the environment; we are all in such a rush to get everywhere and do so much, that we have to get places quicker and that always uses more fuel; as people in the modern world, we all want to achieve more, advance more – whether it is greed or ambition or just so many more opportunities on offer, it uses up natural resources much quicker than they are produced – so I am all for supporting trips that help eco-systems and think more should be done to support reforestation, such as Steppes Travel do or British Airways.

I notice that the next generation, is brought up much more aware of their carbon footprint than we were and this gives me great hope.  I also try to teach my son how precious this world is and how the fact that the planet is round is important; what goes around comes around, or better still the immortal words of Lou Reed, “You’ve got to reap just what you sow”.

10. the one essential you travel with?

If only there was just one! I envy those who travel light. Contact lenses – so that I can see, that is essential. Otherwise, I like to have one of my exercise books and a pencil. I am just learning that an iPhone has a programme called ‘Notes.’

11. your best piece of travel advice?

In my twenties I met an artist/film director called Jean Negulesco – he told me the secret to happiness is to always have enough money to make a journey. It does not matter whether it’s a trans-Atlantic air flight or a short train journey at home. I have tried to keep to that premise and found it to be true. If you have a journey to prepare for or look forward to, everyday life becomes thrilling again.

12. what advice would you give to young ladies wishing to follow in your footsteps?

Avoid the quagmire! ( That’s a legal term, by the way).

13. if you could do it all over again, is there anything you would change?

It’s not over yet…

Get in touch to start planning your holiday to Russia. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

Steppes Big 5: Palaces of St Petersburg

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St-Catherine's-Palace-Russia

St Petersburg boasts some of Europe’s grandest palaces and residences. Full of fascinating history and some of the world’s richest treasures. Below are our top five palaces to include in a visit to St Petersburg.

1. Catherine’s Palace (Pushkin)

Pushkin is one of the former summer residences of the Russian tsars. Situated in the suburbs of Saint Petersburg it comprises of several pavilions, beautiful lakes and gardens and the wonderful Catherine Palace. The summer palace was originally given by Peter the Great to his wife Catherine, and was rebuilt by Italian architect Rastrelli in 1756. The palace is a huge, elegant building with white and gold Baroque mouldings set against a blue background and located in a beautiful park with elaborate gardens, canals and pavilions.

2. Peterhof

Peterhof is a must in the summer. Peterhof, or “Peter’s Court”, dates back to 1715 and is a former summer residence of the Russian Tsars. Most famous for its stunning golden fountains, the palace grounds house several buildings and parks.

3. Winter Palace (Hermitage)

The Hermitage is made up of the Winter Palace, Large and Small Hermitage plus the Theatre and New Hermitage. The Winter Palace, the official residence of Russian emperors, designed by architect Rastrelli in 1754-1762, occupies the leading place in the whole ensemble. The State Hermitage features one of the largest art collections in the world. It numbers about 3 million items, including masterpieces by outstanding artists.

4. Yusupov Palace

The Yusupov Palace is arguably one of the most interesting and beautifully preserved palace in the city. Built in the 1740s and then bought by Catherine the Great for one of her ladies in waiting, it was eventually purchased by Prince Nikolai Yusupov in 1830. Subsequently it was here that Prince Felix Yusupov planned and carried out the murder of Rasputin. All the rooms are beautifully restored and full of art, while the highlight is the exquisite private theatre, built for Zineida Yusupov, where renowned artists have performed.

5. Pavlovsk

Situated about 26 km from St Petersburg and only 5 km from Pushkin. The Palace of Pavlovsk was a present from Catherine the Great to her son Paul. Originally designed by Charles Cameron, it was partially redesigned at Paul’s request by several famous European architects including Quarenghi and Rossi. Severely damaged in World War II, it has been meticulously and lavishly restored and is set amidst extensive parkland which, when created, was the largest landscaped area in the world.

Start your Russia holiday with Steppes Travel. Call us now on 01285 880980 or email us inspire@steppestravel.com for more info.

Why now is the time to travel to Russia

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There is an unfounded perception amongst many western people that because the Russian government is flexing its international muscles, that it has become dangerous to travel in Russia. This notion could not be further from the truth.

Russia is dying economically and with a 100% fall in the value of the Rouble, a country, that was once considered one of the most expensive in the world, has become one of the most affordable. You are welcomed with open arms! £30/head for dinner in the top restaurants.

St Petersburg in the snow is a magical experience and just 3 hours away it is perfect for a long weekend. Four days and you can see all the main palaces and museums. Take advantage of the downturn and go! It might not last (actually it will for a time!).

The seduction of St Petersburg – Be inspired by our favourite shows

War & Peace

In a new adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s timeless novel, three young people experience life, love and loss against the epic backdrop of Russia’s wars with Napoleon.

Reinventing Russia

Lucy Worsley travels to Russia to tell the extraordinary story of the dynasty that ruled the country for more than three centuries. It’s an epic tale that includes giant figures such as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, the devastating struggle against Napoleon in 1812, and the political murders of Nicholas II and his family in 1918 which brought the dynasty to a brutal end.

Talk to our Russia Travel Experts to start your privately guided tour of Russia, call us on 01285 601 753  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

The Jewels of St Petersburg

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Having just come back from the Third International Faberge Symposium, held this week at the newly opened Faberge Museum – I feel in a better position to give you more detail about the trip to St Petersburg in February 2015. Russia may be suffering a bout of bad press, but St Petersburg is thriving.

In December the 250th Anniversary of the Hermitage will be celebrated on St Catherine’s day, the saints day of its founder Catherine the Great.

This year the Four Seasons Hotel opened, the new private Faberge museum opened – both after years of building work and restoration in highly prized pre Revolutionary palaces.

The General Staff building opened its doors to contemporary art, moving the famous Matisse paintings from the Winter Palace to the new contemporary wing, together with the Hermitage version of Malevich’s Black Square (the Russian Museum’s version is on exhibition in London at the Tate at the moment).

I chose to focus on “Jewels of St Petersburg” because so many people are amazed by the exquisite architecture of St Petersburg, it is important to draw the visitors attention to the incredible materials used in the building of the city, as well as some of the marvels created for both Tsars and Soviet leaders from Russia’s precious stones and metals.

On our tour, therefore, we will visit the Mining Institute and the Geological institute, which not only gives the visitor an insight to the vastness of the land of Russia but also to the wealth and quantity of their natural resources.

We shall see the interiors of St Isaacs Cathedral, furnished with semi
precious stones in vast quantities, the Church of the Spilt Blood, an ornate example of gold mosaics; the Agate Pavilion and the Amber Room at the Catherine Palace, both now restored post WWII damage, by masters of present day Russia with raw materials from Siberia and the Baltics.

In the Hermitage we shall see the ancient (400 BC) collection of Scythian Gold from the Black Sea, exquisite examples of gold jewellery and animal symbols, also the Diamond Vaults with the jewel encrusted snuff boxes, brooches, walking sticks, swords and Faberge miniatures of the Tsars.  As Friends of the Hermitage we will have the opportunity to visit curators special collections and have the expert knowledge of these academics explain to us the importance of the collection.

In the Ethnographic Museum, we shall have a private tour of the many jewels and costumes presented by the peoples of Russia to the Tsar on the celebration of 300 years of the Romanov family in 1913. Coral, turquoise, shells, silver, rubies and gold all in ethnic designs as according to their tribal customs.  Also in this museum is a rare collection of exquisitely carved bone from the Arctic circle Inuit tribes.

The icons on display in the Russian Museum show the wealth of the Church and the artistry of the simple icon form.

I also hope to visit a couple of contemporary jewellery makers in the city, as well as restoration studios.

My own personal treasure, The Galitzine Library, celebrates 20 years this October and has been described as a ‘pearl’ and an oasis.  The treasures within it lies in the pages of the books and the preservation and discovery of lost Russian history.

Discover the splendour of the St Petersburg with Princess Katya Galitzine on our expert led tour in February 2015.

Written by our Steppes Travel Expert Tour Leader Princess Katya Galitzine. 

A weekend in Moscow

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From the ancient Cathedrals of Red Square to the secrets of the Kremlin and ghosts of Lubyanka, Moscow is a city with an ancient and enthralling history. I was determined to see as much as possible whilst there.

By chance our lecturer Dr William Taylor was in Moscow at the same time and magically organised a tour of the new Museum of Icons – a vast and impressive privately owned collection. This was followed by an equally rare behind-the-scenes tour of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour with access to all areas – including the roof – with absolutely stunning views in all directions! This is the tallest Orthodox church in the world. An evening walk around Red Square and a small shot of vodka (solely for professional purposes) completed a superb day.

The following morning my guide and I walked for miles and miles unravelling the past through visits to museums, a wonderful art gallery, Moscow’s huge department store Gum, an extended tour of the Kremlin and Moscow University. Any ghosts seemed benign today in the glorious warm sunshine.

A Tale of Two Trains

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“We were waiting for you” the lady said.
I acknowledged her and apologised.

“Haven’t I seen you before. Are you involved in tourism?”
I nodded, slightly perturbed.
“Were you in Central Asia?” she asked.
“Yes, did I meet you in Uzbekistan?” I replied.

Her typically warming central Asian features and iron ore coloured hair started to become familiar with me.  It’s a small world but that’s exactly what is fun about travelling and working in such interesting destinations.

I was in Moscow to begin a dream journey, 9288 km, along the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok. To put it into context the train takes 8 days non-stop, to fly takes 8 hours.

I had not been to Moscow for more than 15 years. The Rossiya Hotel, the monolith of Soviet architecture was a mere hole in the ground; plants and small trees rooting through the concrete. Red Square had not changed and St Basil’s was now worth a visit. Previously it had been sterile and empty. The Kremlin inspires every traveller and the Armoury Museum in it is fabulous. Museums have a habit of becoming a “bore” if too large and too much time is spent in them but the Armoury is in no way guilty of this and has many an exhibit to stare at in awe.

 

The great thing about taking the Golden Eagle Luxury Train is the care and attention the staff take in making sure everything is as good as it can be. The trip exceeds many traveller’s ideas of what they are to expect and many of my companions did not realise that this or that was included or that they had a choice. Imperial Suite customers get their own private guide and car at each location. They can choose what they want to see. However, this is not a prescribed list of suggestions. Almost anything is possible. One couple on my train wanted to see the zoo in Novosibirsk, visit supermarkets and local markets and take a shave with a cut-throat razor at a barbers or on the street. The rest of us were more than content with a choice of usually three touring options at each stop.

We did stop to see the main points of interest in Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and Irkutsk. The train went on via to Ulan Ude to Vladivostok but I was to leave the Golden Eagle in Irkutsk and take the Russian railways for the remainder of the journey.

More of that later.

There certainly is a mysticism about travelling East. The journey started out in thick cloud and rain, a dull Moscow brightened up by preparations for the forthcoming May 9th Victory in Europe day celebrations. WWII in Russia is called the Great Patriotic War. Odd, somehow, to think we were on the same side once before the cloak and dagger Cold War took hold. We departed from Yaroslavl station in Moscow and were treated to a champagne and canapé reception in the very grand and elegant high ceilinged VIP lounge. It was recreating travel of old. Our train attendants met us in the lounge, were introduced to us and then escorted us to the train through a line of black uniformed police officers complete with bullet proof vests, truncheons and probably a lesson or two in armed combat and defence.

Train travel is often underestimated, thought to be slow and antiquated. I, however, given the chance, prefer it. I think it gives a different perspective to the country. You see behind the scenes, beyond the display; its shining glory. Russia is no different. The suburbs are full of “lock-ups”, lines of single story garages where people keep cars, store their belongings and sometimes even live. Walls are covered in graffiti and rubbish is thrown over fences or just dumped. Stray dogs roam and odd bodies, usually of men, huddle, drinking vodka and generally looking shady. Russia can be a tough place for those at the bottom and there are few safety nets.

There are endless miles to cover. The trains do not go particularly fast so there is plenty of time to see and absorb. Apart from the big cities we stopped at, Omsk, Khabarovsk and Chita, most towns are quite small. In fact many people simply live in villages of wooden houses. I always wonder how they came to be here, why they are here and what do they do. Each house has a massive woodpile to withstand the long harsh winters, some have painted window shutters and they all have well-kept gardens to grow vegetables, keep chickens, geese or ducks and perhaps a cow or two. There is also, almost certainly, a huge guard dog chained to a post. These same huge dogs guard the railway bridges.

The terrain is largely flat and even the Ural Mountains that separate Europe from Asia are not more than a gentle rise in elevation. The train snakes through forests of birch and skirts large open patches of steppe as far as Irkutsk. No fences here but people’s copses and small woodlands are marked by a tractor’s plough width around the relevant plot. From Ulan Ude Spring was more advanced, the grass greener and the birch switched to deciduous forests of hardwood. Lakes appeared and more rivers flowed whilst men fished from the banks or from small boats. I saw a mother walking home with her two sons, fish hanging from a wooden pole, very Tom Sawyer.

I expected to see more wildlife, deer perhaps, but all I saw were a few water birds and birds of prey. I did see what looked like a limping wolverine in the open by the railway tracks but it was difficult to determine exactly what it was.

 

A highlight of the Golden Eagle Luxury Train trip was travelling through the night on the old railway from Irkustk to Lake Baikal and on to Port Baikal. There was heightened expectation in the morning not only of seeing Lake Baikal as the sun glowed orange at sunrise but of catching glimpses of the steam locomotive that had hauled us here on this leg of the journey. We stopped mid-morning at the entrance to a tunnel. Here we disembarked and spent the next two hours marvelling at the train, taking pictures of the lake or climbing up the hillside for a panoramic view. The locomotive made all manner of hissing noises as it built up steam, retracing its route up the line before stopping and travelling back towards us, blowing its smoke high in to the air. Jets of steam exited sideways from under the train like a dragon snorting and protecting its territory, magnificent. We then boarded the diesel locomotive and travelled on the walkway outside the engine giving us a prime open air view of the lake and scenery we passed by. Two special experiences appreciated by all. After moving further towards Port Baikal and stopping for a BBQ lunch of Baikal Omel, a fish endemic to the lake, we took a boat across to Listvianka, a small village, an hour away from Irkutsk. Here I left the Golden Eagle train to begin my adventure on Russian Railways.

Listvianka stretches along the shores of the lake and into a couple of valleys. It is popular with Russians and a good base from which to explore the area. The alternative taxi service here is by hovercraft. I arrived on a dreary cold grey afternoon and the next day I awoke to a blanket of white snow. The colder weather was unexpected, but it gave my surroundings a sense of atmosphere. My wooden hut accommodation in Listvianka was quaint and very simple, yet the floor of my room was heated and the electric heater worked a treat. It does not matter where you are in Russia, they know how to keep warm, excessively so sometimes. In most towns the authorities determine when the heating will come on and go off. Once off it does not come on again until the following Autumn. A hangover from Soviet organisation.  Several days before it had been +20’c and now we were into minus temperatures.

 

My first journey on Russian Railways was a short 8 hour overnight journey from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude. This is a convenient train as most clients eat before boarding and then arrive in time for breakfast at a hotel. The only thing to think about are the toilet arrangements. Two Western style toilets are located in each carriage. Most clients travel in either Coupe (shared 4 berth) or Deluxe (2 berth) and not in the open Plaskart (6 berth with no compartment walls). These days the carriage attendants sell light bites, chocolate bars, crisps, noodles, provide tea or rent you the glass to make your own. A “samovar” of boiling water is always on hand. The train is also equipped with electrical sockets so no problem in charging mobile telephones, I-Pads or camera batteries, just bring a universal adaptor.

 

Whilst Moscow, Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk are Russian, Kazan is Tartar (and Muslim).  Irkutsk is a mix of both Russian and Buryat and Ulan Ude largely Buryat (Buddhist & Shamanist). Coexisting with the accommodating Buryats near Ulan Ude are the Old Believers, Christians who exiled themselves to Siberia in the 17th century after disagreeing with changes to the Russian Orthodox Church. These communities not only dress in colourful costumes they decorate their houses in bright colours too. They are recognised by UNESCO as one of the 19 Cultural Treasures of the World. Listening to their singing in Tarbagtai village was a delight. Ulan Ude has the largest Buddha in Russia in the newly built and evolving Bagsha Datsen (Monastery) and the largest head of Lenin too. On the day I visited Ivolginsky Datsen I was treated to a major event. In 1927 the 12th Pandito Hambo Lama died. He told his followers to bury him and check on him 30 years later. His body was exhumed. He was sitting in the lotus position in which he remains today. He is now mummified but several times a year he is shown to the public. Pilgrims come to the monastery and do the kora, a walk past the shrines and prayer wheels, and pay homage to the Lama. The chanting by the crimson clad monks was magical, the sun shining and the religious following very evident.

Leaving Ulan Ude for Vladivostok meant some planning, I thought anyway. This was a non-stop journey of 3 days and 3 nights. I packed what I did not need and stored it under my bunk (I had a lower berth in a shared 4 berth compartment) in one bag and had a small bag for changes of clothes and another for food I purchased in the market the day before my departure. Part of the reason for taking the Russian Railways was to experience what had changed in the 25 years since I had first done a small section of the journey. The train left at 04.17 in the morning. The thing about travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway is that you pass through 7 time zones between Moscow and Vladivostok so you are continually moving your clock forward by an hour almost every day. To keep things in check all trains run on Moscow time. A timetable on the carriage wall lists all station stops, the duration of the stop (anywhere between 1 minute and 22 minutes) and the Time + the number of hours from Moscow or minus if travelling East to West. At the end of the carriage a display gives you Moscow time, your carriage number and the temperature, usually a pleasant 21-24 C.

There is an etiquette about travelling by train. Travellers will board in their suits, uniforms or their finest clothes. Once on board and settled in they change into their train wear. Perhaps shorts and T-shirt or a tracksuit. Adidas preferred for men and a velour two piece travel suit for women. Before disembarking they get dress into their finest once more and off they go.

 

I met with the train engineer after failing to make the carriage attendant understand that I was interested in taking a shower. He spoke very good English and had been travelling, I think, back and forth on the Trans-Siberian for the last 8 years living on the train when away from home and with only perhaps a 5 day break between journeys during the busy Summer period. I had heard that there were showers on board and I wanted to see for myself what was offered and how it worked. I was on Train 2 (West to East), the best train in the country (Train 1 goes East to West). I was shown the shower. It was a good size with a curtain and housed in a good size room with an ironing board and a bench but interestingly no sink. I was warned that you only got a limited number of litres of water before it stopped worked so I rushed not wanting to be stranded covered in soap and having to hail the non-English speaking attendant.  Pressure was good, I did not run out of water and for about £2.45 I was again clean. Adjacent to the shower was a compartment for disabled use with an extra wide door and a lift to assist with wheelchairs on and off the train. My final task, at the request of a client who I have booked on the train, was to investigate cold storage for medicines. The engineer helped me again. He told me that the restaurant could probably store them but in any event each attendant had in their compartment a small refrigerator and this was probably good to use. Diabetics are catered for too.

Arriving in Vladivostok felt like an achievement. Following the Pacific coast on the last section into the city said “this is the end, there is nowhere else to go”.  I had expected the train to consist of many carriages and be full of people. Most, I guess, opt for the Trans-Siberian through Mongolia. The train was not long, was not crowded and so felt special in a way because so few people were doing this section. Vladivostok, for a long time a forbidden city, was the end. Built on a peninsula it has a small historic centre making it easy to explore whilst on the hills that stretch away in all directions, West anyway, huge (I mean huge) residential blocks of flats cover every square foot. I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge in bright sunshine providing excellent views of the town. The next day a swirling mist hung over the bay and the bridge was not visible at all.

A fitting end to a wonderful journey along the World’s longest railway.

An update from St Petersburg & Moscow

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There is a light dusting of snow on the ground in St. Petersburg and the day time temperature is hovering around zero. No ice on the canals yet, but no doubt that the city is gathering itself for winter.

Christmas trees and decorations are in evidence, Nevsky Prospekt has lights to rival Regent Street and Christmas markets are springing up in several parks. A far cry from the days of socialism when celebrations were restricted to New Year’s Eve.

On the hotel front there are two notable additions. The long awaited and much anticipated Four Seasons has at last opened its doors on the site of the Lubanov-Rostovsky Palace right beside the Hermitage. Painstaking research has led to much being restored to its original splendour with marble columns and gold leaf in abundance although it is the huge flower arrangements which are most noticeable. The rooms are large, beautifully furnished but with varying views (some internal). The presidential suite is more of an apartment, with a balcony easily large enough for a party of 60. There is even a Galitzine suite which my wife has her eye on for a night (she is a Galitzine after all!).

The other is the Hermitage Hotel which is operating under licence from the museum. Huge lobby in the old Russian style and well-appointed rooms although it is let down slightly by the location. On the other hand they run a free shuttle bus to the Hermitage three times a day and there is an excellent market next door for honey and red caviar. Its success or failure will depend on how it prices itself.

Restaurants have changed a bit and I was particularly sad to see my old favourite Probka had closed down after some 10 years of consistently fine Italian food. A rarity for a restaurant to be around for so long, but rumours suggest it will open elsewhere.

A Faberge Museum has opened in the recently restored Shuvalov Palace at 21 Fontanka, a short distance from the Anichkov Bridge. The first private museum of its kind in Russia, the collection displays over 4,000 works of art from the late 19th and early 20th centuries of which the core is the collection of Faberge bought by the Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg from Malcolm Forbes. Currently only opened to pre-booked groups, it is due to open its doors to the public at some stage in 2014.

I then took the 14.30 Nevsky Express train to Moscow. A journey of 4 hours. A comfortable, air-conditioned, six seat compartment with individual lighting. The restaurant car is well worth a visit for a late lunch. My solyanka meat soup somewhat surprisingly delicious with excellent and helpful service. Great Western Trains could learn a thing or two! Definitely the best and quickest way to travel between the two cities.

In Moscow I stayed at the new Kempinski Hotel which has opened in a former merchant’s house overlooking Lubyanka Square, the site of the old KGB headquarters. It has been well designed and decorated and one I would highly recommend. Good sized rooms, big bathrooms and all the conveniences you would expect although I fear my mother would not cope with the electronic touch pad lighting and ventilation system. What is wrong with good old fashioned switches? The Italian restaurant obviously has a fine chef who produced a delicious dinner.

Moscow has hundreds of restaurants to choose from although for what it is worth I had lunch in Villa Roza on Pyatniskaya and I would go back like a
shot!

Moscow World Athletics

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This weekend, from 10 August, Moscow will host to the world’s most elite athletes as they arrive for the World Athletics Championships. After the Olympic fever of last summer I’m sure lots of us will be tuned in but keep an eye out for Moscow’s iconic skyline in the background. I like watching athletics as much as the next person but not quite as much as I love Russia and in particular Moscow.

Moscow is a city full of contrasts – old Soviet style buildings mix with new, modern architecture and small local cafes sit next door to some of the best restaurants I’ve ever visited. Moscow hosts its own ‘championship’ collection of hotels, with ‘gold medal’ service so for a ‘bolt’ of excitement head to Moscow for a perfect weekend getaway.

For more information on a long weekend to Moscow or a holiday to Russia, I would love to help plan the perfect trip and share my passion for this amazing city, call me.

A city break to St Petersburg

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If you glance behind as you walk out of the modern steel and glass terminal in St Petersburg airport you will see the squat yellow building that once served as the international terminal.

This archetypal Soviet design was replicated throughout Russia in literally thousands of airports both big and small.

Drive into the city down the six lane Moscow Prospekt and the architecture on either side also tracks the design progress. Around the airport modern factories and car show rooms have sprung up, but on the outskirts you find the hastily erected flats of the Brezhnev era, despised by all. Further in and the road is flanked by the imposing solid structure of the Stalinist regime, flats which to this day are highly sort after.

Note the huge Leningrad City administrative building on the right, complete with one of the last remaining statues of Lenin out in front, but which was never occupied. The city council refused to move. One of the few times that Stalin’s autocratic rule was thwarted.

Few people notice the granite mile stones designed by architect Rinaldi (18C) which mark the distance in versts (a little over a kilometre) from the Hermitage to the summer palace in Tsarskoye Selo.

A little further and 19th century architecture begins to appear until, once over the Fontanka Canal, you are in what is known as the golden triangle. Wide boulevards, no building over five stories, the symmetry of design never failing to please the eye.

I have been travelling to St Petersburg for 24 years now and yet each time I discover something new. Exquisite art and theatre, a leisurely boat cruise at midnight with the sun still not below the horizon, a quick shot of vodka and a pancake filled with red caviar, a walk through the 250 hectares of landscaped garden at Pavlovsk, a ride on a hydrofoil along the Gulf of Finland to the palace of Peterhoff, the list goes on.

Yes it has changed, but so has every city. If you have not been I strongly urge you to try it for a weekend. The new 4 Seasons Hotel opens this summer – expensive but magnificent.

For more information about a holiday to St Petersburg or any area of Russia, please contact our Russia specialists on 01285 880 980.

Time for Tea in St Petersburg as the Eleseyev Shop re-opens at 56 Nevsky

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Despite the rain and after an absence of 4 months I have rekindled my love affair with St Petersburg, I toured the new Four Seasons hotel which is due
to open in October and which will, undoubtedly, establish itself as the city’s finest.

Housed in the former Lobanov-Rostovsky palace looking over St Isaac’s cathedral, no expense has been spared to recreate the interior of a 19th century palace. It is still a building site but will have three restaurants, spa and gym and a magnificent ballroom.

Another notable edition to the city is the reopening of the Eleseyev shop at 56 Nevsky. Originally opened in 1902 by the Eleseyev brothers, it quickly established itself as the Fortnum and Mason of the city. Today in private hands the interior has been beautifully restored and surpasses the Harrods’s food halls in its decor.

Take tea under a palm tree in the centre listening to a quartet play from the balcony while cheeses, confectionary, wines and teas are sold by an array of good looking staff. Downstairs is a small restaurant serving a wide range of food at reasonable prices. Of historical interest is that this room was where all the food was stored for what were considered key personnel during the siege of Leningrad in WWII.

For more information about visiting St Petersburg and discovering all it has to offer, please contact our Russia specialists on 01285 651 010, or take a look at our journey ideas for further inspiration for a holiday to Russia.

A Long Weekend in exciting Moscow

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Sitting at Moscow airport watching the snow start to cover the wings of our British Airways plane I had time to reflect on what an amazing long weekend my husband and I had just had in Moscow. We arrived flying in over traditional villages, snow as far as the eye could see, driving into the city past the acres of former communal flats known as Khrushchev apartments, this was my fourth visit to Russia but only my second to Moscow, so a chance to gain a better understanding of this iconic city – and what a city!

To me Moscow is where all the elements of Russia meet; it’s a melting pot of food, history (old and new), cultures and lifestyles. The streets lined with Ladas and Porches are how people see the new Russia.

With a constant quiet chatter of Putin following the recent elections, the fleets of armoured trucks lining Red Square in anticipation of a peaceful gathering on the Saturday, this was an exciting time to be there. While of course our visits to the Kremlin, with its gold domed churches, the snowy morning spent at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and Red Sqare are impressive highlights and not to be missed, it was the insight into local life which helped me understand this new Russia, starting with a wonderful local lunch.

Encouraged by our outstanding guide Helena we indulged in borche, local dumplings and dark rye bread, of course all washed down with vodka. Convinced that drinking three shots of neat vodka at lunchtime would finish me off, Helena assured us that the accompanying pickles with honey and garlic shoots wrapped in pork fat would negate any affect of the alcohol, and she was right. Vodka made of grain, she assured us, is after all just liquid bread!

Visits followed to the new Tretyakov Gallery showcasing Russian art from the 20th century, including some spectacular revolutionary paintings and social realist art and the Izmailovsky market. This market is home to your essential souvenirs – fur hats, Russian dolls and fridge magnets but it is the hand painted plates from Uzbekistan, the woven rugs from Tajikistan, the painted icons and relics from the former Soviet Union that make a trip on the famous Moscow Metro to this market so worthwhile. Not to mention the delicious shashlik with homemade flat bread for lunch.

To me, Moscow is the most authentically Russian city I’ve visited; it is exciting, vibrant and fascinating. The communism of old Russia has been replaced by dedication to religion and politics of a new Russia but its sense of identity and its people remain as genuine and mesmerising as ever.

To talk to Sally further about her visit to Moscow, or for advice on planning your holiday to Russia, please contact Sally on 01285 651 010.

The Last Soviet Gulag

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I have just returned from a week in Perm located in the Urals, a two hour flight East of Moscow. What a great city. It was White Nights (meaning that it did not really get dark) and the first year of the new Perm Festival.

The accommodation on offer is good and varied. Although at present there is no 5* hotel, this does not matter too much. What was on offer was in good condition, the staff friendly and all was accessible. Even the big Ural Hotel, a former Soviet hotel, felt smaller once inside which was a real surprise.

The restaurants we were taken to were varied and offered local (Russian satellite states) and international food. It was plentiful and the quality excellent in some interesting environments.

The museums we visited were excellent offering both cultural and historical exhibitions. Art was also both modern and historical.

The tourist office was fabulous and our contact with the staff over the period of stay cemented that feeling. The staff were great and spoke excellent English. The maps they had were great with pertinent information and the new walking routes (red & green) were fantastic, informative and excellently presented. The guides they arranged for us through local travel agencies were also fabulous, knowledgeable, helpful, friendly and had a great level of English. They felt passionate about what they were doing and about the city and its environs.

The excursions were varied and in addition to churches and monasteries included an ice cave and the only surviving Gulag from the Soviet period, Perm 36 and an open-air ethnographic museum set on a hillside next to a lake and small village displaying wooden houses, churches and farm building dating back 250 years. These excursions gave you a chance to see “real Russia”, the countryside and local villages, many with single story wooden houses complete with intricately carved wooden window frames. It has limited flight links with Europe so is probably best combined with a visit to another Russian city such as Moscow & St Petersburgh.

To talk to Paul about his trip, or to ask advice about your holiday to Russia, please call him on 01285 651010.