The story of our Russian expedition actually began quite far from the land of Chekov and Dr. Zhivago–about 2,432 miles away to be exact, in the sun-kissed utopia of Sintra, Portugal. A twelve-hour layover in Lisbon meant a quick visit with our dear friends Alex and Aline at their boutique farm perched in the aromatic hills of Serra de Sintra.We had a brief opportunity to see the changes in progress at the farm, a heavenly swath of land punctuated by beautifully renovated buildings and gardens that host guests from all over the world. (Click here to see their beautiful farm!) After enjoying some poolside lunch and a massage, we visited a little bistro named Sintra Magic for a pre-flight drink before heading back to the airport.
Approximately five and a half hours later we landed in Moscow, the capital city of Russia–famous for St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin, and Red Square, and home to dozens of poets, playwrights, and writers in Russia’s rich literary history. Our hosts Lilia and Oleg, friends of our fellow travelers Ginny and Anatoli, greeted us and swept us into the curious dichotomy that is Moscow–at once opulent and pragmatic, vivid and stoic. The ribbons of its rich and turbulent history weave together, street by street, intertwining the decadence of the Russian Empire with the stark practicality of the Soviet era. We saw cars so burnt and dilapidated that they should, by all accounts, be rusting away in a junkyard, driving past buildings of unimaginable beauty and lavishness.
Lilia and Oleg escorted us on a tour of the famous Moscow Metro, one of the world’s deepest and longest (mostly) underground transit systems. I am not exaggerating when I say that the Metro is the cleanest and most opulent subway I have ever seen in my life. From the bathrooms to the tunneled hallways to the tracks themselves, everything was incredibly tidy. We were even graced with a beautiful performance by a troop of street musicians playing in one of the tunnels. One word to the wise: if you decide to venture to the Metro on a visit to Moscow, I highly recommend having a guide that speaks and reads Russian. Unlike many countries where we’ve ventured, there is little English to be found on the signs and markers in Russia and the subway is no exception. Had we not been piloted by Lilia and Oleg, we would have struggled a great deal to make heads or tails of where we were going, or where we had been.
Our excursion then lead us to a huge Cold War era museum know as Bunker 42–an eerie relic of a less-than-jovial period in our recent history with Russia, buried 18 floors beneath the streets of Moscow. Bunker 42 was built to house important government officials in case of attack from the United States. Its tunnels and rooms were designed to support up to 30,000 personnel for as many as 90 days without any assistance or support from the outside world. Complete with generators, air filtration systems, and its own artesian wells, it was certainly fortified for its purpose. No tour of a creepy bunker is complete without a terrifying, spontaneous alarm drill with flashing lights and shrill, blaring sirens–exactly the sort of thing that you don’t want to happen whilst trapped 213 feet under the surface of the earth in a tiny passageway. Needless to say, it was an exciting visit.
We ended our first day with dinner at a neat little restaurant called Grand Cafe Dr. Zhivago (you can see more about it here) followed by a quick visit to the Kremlin. The next day, we visited Gorky Park, a flower-swathed eden famous for its shady alleys and gardens. Gorky Park, like so many of Moscow’s landmarks, has been through several chapters of disrepair and reformation at the hands of political and social fluctuations in Russia. As it stands now, it’s a lovely place to visit–once again demonstrating a level of tidiness unrivaled by other large cities I’ve wandered in the past.
One afternoon, we had the pleasure to dine at The White Rabbit, one of the top fifty restaurants in the world. Perched high above Moscow in a spectacular atrium at the top of the Smolenskaya Plaza building, the restaurant boosts some of the most impressive views in the city, as well as award-winning cuisine that keeps the restaurant booked to capacity almost every night of the week. (Learn more about it here.)
We ventured out of Moscow for a short detour, which you can read about in a separate post, and returned a couple of days later to wander through a fantastic marketplace bursting with fresh produce, fish, and pickled goods. We also visited another park which featured a different building for each republic in the former USSR. Towards the end of our trip, we took an overnight train to St. Petersburg. Our romantic vision of the train ride hadn’t taken into account the discomfort of the beds and sleeping quarters–probably not something we would do again. However, St. Petersburg revealed itself to be one of the most beautiful cities we’d ever visited. Our short trip included a pass by the Hermitage and lunch at a sweet little restaurant with some interesting displays of historical artifacts. We stayed at the Alexander House (which you can read more about by clicking here), a beautiful hotel well worth considering if you plan to visit.
In the evening, under the eternal-dusk that lingers at that latitude, we took a boat tour of the vast rivers and canals of St. Petersburg. We got a chance to see the Winter Palace and the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, with its breath-taking medieval Russian architecture and intricate mosaics depicting biblical scenes and figures covering every wall and surface within. Our visit culminated with a very special treat–Swan Lake at the ballet. If anything captures the dedication to beauty and artistic accomplishment of Russia, it’s the ballet, especially Swan Lake. It was a wonderful way to wrap up what had been a truly magical, unforgettable visit.
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