St. Petersburg – A Scintillating City

Last year, my first international trip began with a week-long visit to Russia. We spent our first few days in Moscow (read Glimpses of Moscow – A Photo Essay) and took the Sapsan superfast train to St. Petersburg – the more European of the two cities.

The road to St. Petersburg is coloured with water and ice

The road to St. Petersburg is coloured with water and ice

Stepping into Sankt Peterburg

Travelling as we were in the winter, I expected the city to be a sullen, grey shadow of its summer-self. But “Sankt Peterburg” (as it is called in Russian), was out to surprise me with its colours and a strange warmth in the frozen climes.

Our home in this winter-city

Our home in this winter-city

A Taste of Russian Hospitality

I made this trip with my parents and little sister. My folks had been wary of my travel planning skills, but they were delighted when I kept revealing one wonder after another. Our place of stay (Soul Kitchen – more on that in another blogpost) in St. P was something they absolutely loved! After all, I had booked us two private rooms at the best place in (possibly) all of Russia! 😀

The evening we entered the city, we chatted with our friendly hosts and got some nice recommendations on places to see. We had a quick dinner at a nearby cafe and slept early for the next day was going to be an exciting one! 🙂

Saint Isaac's Cathedral - the largest orthodox basilica in the world

Saint Isaac’s Cathedral – the largest orthodox basilica in the world

Saint Isaac’s Cathedral

The icy winds could do nothing to stop us from leaving our temperature controlled haven. We strutted out in our boots and overcoats and followed the map to our first stop – Isaakievskiy Sobor. More commonly known as Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, this is the fourth largest cathedral in the world. You can climb a spiral staircase to reach the roof of this building, from where you shall have a panoramic view of the entire city.

Bejeweled Easter eggs with a replica of Isaakievskiy Sobor inside

Bejeweled Easter eggs with a replica of Isaakievskiy Sobor inside

The cathedral has opulent interiors which take at least an hour to admire. There are also shopping kiosks for those looking for good quality amber and ornate trinkets to take back home. This cathedral deserves a blogpost of its own, so I will reveal more about this Sobor in that article.

A couple dressed in traditional royal attire glides past the Kazan Cathedral

A couple dressed in traditional royal attire glides past the Kazan Cathedral

Kazan Cathedral

Before you read about the cathedral, you must be aware of ‘Our Lady of Kazan’. She is a venerated icon, often regarded as Virgin Mary, and the guardian of the Russian city of Kazan. The cathedral, also known as Kazanskiy Kafedralniy Sobor, is inspired by the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Many events of political importance have transpired inside this semicircular splendour. It is mandatory for every woman to cover her head before she enters, as a mark of respect for Our Lady of Kazan. It’s unfortunate that photography is prohibited inside, I cannot show you the palatial and lavish interiors.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

The Church on Spilled Blood

The Church on Spilled Blood is so named because it is here that Alexander II (who happened to be the Emperor of Russia, the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Finland), was assassinated with grenades. The church stands beside the Griboedov Canal and has mosaic interiors to match the magnificence of its elaborate exterior.

Lunch at MarketPlace - a delightful restaurant

Lunch at MarketPlace – a delightful vegetarian-friendly restaurant

A Marketplace of Happiness

We lunched at a bright, cheerful restaurant called MarketPlace. This cafe is highly recommended for its artisanal breads, fresh vegetables and a wide selection of Russian dishes. The ambiance is warm and welcoming, and the decor, homely, with pots and pans suspended from the ceiling.

On a side note, I have been so impressed by Russian food and places to eat that I’m going to write an exclusive guide to eating in this country.

River Neva refuses to freeze in the sub-zero temperatures

River Neva refuses to freeze in the sub-zero temperatures

The Other Side of Neva

River Neva is the third largest river in Europe and has a number of bridges connecting its banks. From Nevsky Prospekt, one can see the Palace Quay and the Winter Palace on the other side of the deep blue waters. The river itself is home to wild ducks and fresh water fishes. It is difficult to describe what a walk along the Palace Embankment feels like. Pushkin puts it much better in this poem from his novel, Eugene Onegin:-

Filled with his heart’s regrets, and leaning
Against the rampart’s granite shelf,
Eugene stood lost in pensive dreaming
(As once some poet drew himself).
The night grew still… with silence falling;
Only the sound of sentries calling,
Or suddenly from Million Street
Some distant droshky’s rumbling beat;
Or floating on a drowsy river,
A lonely boat would sail along,
While far away some rousing song
Or plaintive horn would make us shiver.
But sweeter still, amid such nights,
Are Tasso’s octaves’ soaring flights.

The Palace Square with the Alexander Column at its centre

The Palace Square with the Alexander Column at its centre

The Palace Square

The Palace Square is an expansive open space with the Alexander Column as its focal point. The column was constructed to commemorate Russia’s victory over France in the 19th century. This square has seen a lot of history – revolutions and bloodshed. But today, it’s a place for teenagers to skateboard and toddlers to scamper around; a place where lovers walk holding hands and the romantics take horse-carriage rides.

The Russian tricolour flutters atop the Winter Palace

The Russian tricolour flutters atop the Winter Palace

The Winter Palace

Once upon a time, this green palace would house the Russian royal family. Today, it forms a part of the Hermitage Museum which has a colossal collection of European art and antiquities spread across more than a hundred rooms! It is said that to properly see every room, one needs an entire month. It is awful that we only had the better part of an afternoon 🙁

An exquisitely designed chandelier hangs from the ornate ceiling of the Hermitage Museum

An exquisitely designed chandelier hangs from the ornate ceiling of the Hermitage Museum

The palace and museum complex is one of the most grandiose I have ever seen in my life. There are throne rooms that have been privy to coronations, reception rooms that have held many spectacular balls, guest suites and nurseries, apartments for the Tsar and the Empress, and umpteen private rooms, apart from the halls that housed arms and gilt.

My fingers are already itching to write another post specifically for the Hermitage complex. But right now, I must take you across the Palace Bridge to another spectacle on the other side. 🙂

Peter and Paul Fortress on the Zayachy Island

Peter and Paul Fortress on the Zayachy Island

Peter and Paul Fortress

This fortress was built by Peter the Great (the ruler of the Russian Empire) on Zayachy Ostrov or Hare Island to protect the city of St. Petersburg from a potential Swedish attack. The fortress served a dual purpose of being a military base and prison for high-profile inmates.

There is also the imposing Peter and Paul Cathedral in the fortress complex which has a gilded spire that makes it the tallest Orthodox church in the world. The complex has an array of museums with separate entry fee, canon exhibits and interactive statues for photo-ops.

Someday, I shall rule from my iron throne :-P

Someday, I shall rule from my iron throne 😛

I was in St. P for less than 3 days but I got glimpses of history spanning hundreds of years. Some trips are too short to search for answers to all the questions we have. I know in my heart that I will return to Russia someday.

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Glimpses of Moscow – A Photo Essay

Last month was a magical whirlwind for me. I quit my job, romanced Russia for a week, and returned to India to start at a new workplace… with a promise to return to my new found love. I have plenty of untold stories lined up for you in a series of posts dedicated to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Here is a teaser of all that awaits you… a glimpse of the capital city of Moscow:-

Cathedral of Saint Basil – A Beauty since 1561

The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed

The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed

Legend has it that the then Tsar of Russia, Ivan the Terrible, asked the architect of this world famous landmark if he could build such a beautiful structure again. To that, Postnik Yakovlev, the architect, replied, “I will design a hundred such magnificent buildings at your command, my Lord!” Ivan promptly ordered Postnik to be blinded, so there would not be anything like St. Basil’s Cathedral elsewhere in the world.

GUM Mall – Where Heritage meets Contemporary

The enchanting interiors of Gum Mall

The enchanting interiors of Gum Mall

Located at Red Square – the city centre of Moscow, GUM has been in existence for over 120 years. The heritage architecture of the building and the old-style decor on the exterior of the facade will not let you believe that a modern shopping centre flourishes inside!

Old Arbat Street – A Fine Example of Starting Over after all has been Destroyed

A local in the traditional Russian attire on Old Arbat Street

A local in the traditional Russian attire on Old Arbat Street

A posh locality in Moscow, the 600-year old Arbat Street was gutted in a catastrophic fire in 1812. After it was rebuilt, this august street has been home to famous Russian writers, Pushkin being one of them. This street is now a popular shopping area for tourists looking for souvenirs.

Moskva – The River that gave Moscow its Name

The glittering Moscva River at night

The glittering Moskva River at night

The Moskva river flows under majestic bridges that link various parts of this city. Book a cruise and watch Moscow from one bank to another as you float across the city that borrowed its name from the eponymous river. You cannot miss the dazzling Radisson Royal Hotel on your way!

Kremlin and the Icons that make up the Complex

A slice of Red Square

A slice of Red Square – State Historical Museum (centre) and Kazan Cathedral (right)

The Moscow Kremlin is a triangular enclosure that sits on Red Square and houses the President of Russia. It is surrounded by famous monuments – St. Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin’s Mausoleum, the State Historical Museum, Kazan Cathedral, GUM Mall, Iberian Gate and Chapel, Moscow City Hall, and several other prominent cathedrals.

Mementos that will remind you of your Moments in Moscow

Matryoshka dolls gathered in a huddle

Matryoshka dolls gathered in a huddle

Moscow is a souvenir-collector’s paradise. Every little item of prominence is steeped in history and some cultural importance in Russia. The ever-so-popular matryoshka dolls that open up to reveal smaller dolls inside them are symbols of life and womanhood. The doll-in-doll mechanism highlights how every woman has found her life through another – her mother, and how this chain is endless. [Stay tuned for my post on shopping in Russia for some tips and more pictures of all the wonderful things you can buy!]

Tsaritsyno – A Castle in the Snow

Tsaritsyno Castle on a bed of fresh snow

Tsaritsyno Castle on a bed of fresh snow

On the outskirts of Moscow hides the dreamy castle of Tsaritsyno. Away from the madding crowds, this secret is known to few travellers. The palace is surrounded by a forest on one side and lakes and gardens on the other. You will need to come out of your comfort zone to get a real feel of Russia!

Golubtsy – Russia’s Love-Letter to your Palate

Golubtsy - a gastronomical delight!

Golubtsy – a gastronomical delight!

Russia has many gastronomical surprises for you, especially if you are vegetarian (as I am). From flavourful borscht to piroshki stuffed with all things delightful, Russia has a treasure trove of exotic and traditional dishes for you. Your tastebuds will thank you for the variety and bursts of flavour! [Don’t miss the exclusive culinary edition coming soon on my blog!]

Domes that Colour the Skies

The Church of the Holy Trinity at the Borisovo Ponds

The Church of the Holy Trinity at the Borisovo Ponds

Moscow has a number of beautiful churches, chapels and cathedrals. The tranquil atmosphere aside, these structures have intriguing architectures. The spires and domes are intricately carved and painted in a riot of colours. The Holy Trinity Church on the way to Domodedovo International Airport looks spectacular with its blue domes and golden emblems.

4 Levels of Metro – What Keeps this City Moving!

Muscovites taking the metro to work

Muscovites taking the metro to work

Moscow has an extensive metro circuit that extends across 4 levels and connects all of this ‘metro’politan city. The metro-circuits were built in circles, tracing the roads that run above them. The roads were constructed in rings around the city centre, and a new ‘ring’ was added whenever the need was felt to expand the city. This is also why the Mayor of Moscow is sometimes called Lord of the ‘Rings’. 😉

This is the end of today’s post, but the beginning of a journey you all have just embarked on with me. Let me hear all your questions and suggestions for the posts to come! If you are planning a trip to Russia, let me know if you want me to touch on anything specific. I want this virtual globe-trot to benefit you just as much as it titillates you!

Help Oindrila Choose her Stay in Moscow!

I was on top of the world when I found out last month that I won return flights to Moscow! 🙂 I pinched myself five times to confirm I wasn’t dreaming. This news couldn’t have come at a better time as I was really upset with my life and the lack of any foreign travel lately. But the world has an amazing way to surprise you and lift your mood when you least expect it!

One of many magical sights that await me! :-) (Source: burgessyachts.com/en/locations/moscow)

One of many magical sights that await me! 🙂 (Source: burgessyachts.com/en/locations/moscow)

While it is really nice to daydream about the wonderful experiences I’ll be having in Moscow, I must not forget that I first have to sort out my stay! I did a quick search for hotels in that city, and boy, are they expensive! I really don’t want to blow my budget on something I’ll only be using for the night. (I’ll be spending a lot of rubles on sightseeing and interesting restaurants and shopping!) I shut my laptop, and a fantastic thought struck me – Airbnb! This option is perfect for a travel freak like me who loves the authentic local experience. Here are the benefits:-

  • I can stay with a local, and yet have some privacy. (I get my own room! 🙂 )
  • If the host is nice (and has free time), I’ll have company on my outings.
  • I’ll get to practise some Russian with a real Russian! 🙂 (That makes me go “Ура”!)
  • And most importantly, it’s dirt cheap!

Now, you know how indecisive I can get when I have too many lovely options! So, I’m asking you all (my wise and well meaning readers 😉 ) to help me choose my stay. I have handpicked 5 rooms offered by some kind ladies (I have nothing against men, but my parents are paranoid! 😛 ) who live in the heart of Moscow. Now, I need your help to finalize my stay! Are you ready? Here are the nominations (*Academy Award style*):-

1. Cute Pink Room

Pink walls with pictures that tell a story? (Source: airbnb.co.in/rooms/1095147)

Pink walls with pictures that tell a story? (Source: airbnb.co.in/rooms/1095147)

This room is right at the top of my list. I love this one because of the thick mattress I can see on the bed. I’m already dreaming of what I’ll dream about when I sleep on it! The room also has a nice window from where I’ll be able to watch the snow melt. Can you see the three racks of books in that corner? I know I’ll be reading myself a story to bed every night!

2. Drawing-Room-Turned-Bedroom

Pullout sofa anyone?(Source: airbnb.co.in/rooms/3889387)

Pullout sofa anyone?(Source: airbnb.co.in/rooms/3889387)

This is a cosy flat in North Moscow. The host is offering her pullout couch with some pillows and blankets thrown in. This looks pretty basic and neat to me. What do you think? This room also has curtains (unlike the previous one). Then again, I’d really like all the sun to keep me warm in the -7 degrees of Moscow!

3. Free Kitchen Access

Home away from home? (Source: airbnb.co.in/rooms/4123024)

Home away from home? (Source: airbnb.co.in/rooms/4123024)

This host lives with her husband and a little child. She’s ready to give full access to her well equipped kitchen. (What if I want to try cooking a new Russian dish?) The neighbourhood is pretty posh and safe, but the residents will be at work all day, so I won’t have a local to take me around.

4. The Brain-and-Brawn Room

Gym + Library in my bedroom? :-)

Gym + Library in my bedroom? 🙂 (Source: airbnb.co.in/rooms/881796)

The spacious wood-floored bedroom has an entire wall full of books! And as if that wasn’t enough, they stock it with a treadmill an weightlifting bars! If I stay here, I’ll not only be slightly more intelligent from my trip, but also look like the female version of Arnold Schwarzenegger! (Okay, I was REALLY kidding there! A week’s worth of working out won’t even help me burn the pounds I’ll gain gorging on Muscovite cuisine.)

5. Four Poster Bed and Flowerpots

Wood and chocolate room?

Wood and chocolate room? (Source: airbnb.co.in/rooms/3870842)

This host sure has greenfingers because every room in her flat has half a dozen flowerpots! 🙂 It’ll be nice to share my room with another living being (only talking about plants here 😉 ). The room is really small, but the price makes up for it.

Alright! I’m done describing my options. If you were me, which would you choose? Help me decide and I’ll delight you with wonderful stories and pictures from my adventures in the mystical city of Moscow! You can view my Airbnb Wishlist for details of the rooms. If reading this article got you interested in Airbnb, you can sign up with my referral link. I’m giving away Airbnb credit worth Rs.1,549 if you use my link to register! (Thank me by helping me choose my stay, please.)

Reigniting Indo-Russo Friendship

Russia and India have shown cultural interest in each other since the time of Nicholas Roerich. If we look at our recent past, we will recall ‘Days of Russian/Indian Culture’, ‘Days of Delhi in Moscow’ and ‘Year of Russia/India in India/Russia’- some fine examples of bi-lateral exchange of thoughts and culture. The initiatives, albeit promising in their intent, struggle to increase penetration among the Russian and Indian people. Events like film-screening and lectures stay confined within the embassies/consulates, RCSC and language-schools. To truly reach out to the masses, we’ll need to improvise and adopt novel measures.

Photo Credit: http://www.commoditytrademantra.com/india/russia-india-begin-negotiations-to-use-national-currencies-bypassing-dollar/

Photo Credit: commoditytrademantra.com

Russian, as a language, can be introduced in Indian middle schools as an elective subject. A similar approach can be taken for Hindi (and other Indian languages) in Russia. Exposing young students to the Cyrillic script will ensure better retention and acceptance of the many Slavic tongues.

The silver screen and the television can also play a major role in forging stronger cultural ties between the two countries. India and Russia need to put concerted efforts to make movies, short-films and documentaries from either country readily available in the other (preferably with subtitles and/or translations). New films are frequently sought by today’s multiplex-generation in India, and this initiative will reach a wider audience. Soaps, sitcoms and talk-shows featuring Russia and India can be aired on popular TV-channels and can be used effectively to dispel myths about each other’s culture. A dedicated channel for Russian-language-shows in India (and likewise for Hindi in Russia) is another option the two countries can look at.

With both Russia and India having multifarious cuisines to their credit, there’s plenty to be explored in the culinary sphere. Indo-Russian food festivals can be organized in collaboration with master-chefs (who specialize in the said cuisines) and star-hotels. India is yet to see any Russian restaurant of note, despite the abundance of well-heeled diners whose palates are opening up to (and wholeheartedly embracing) world cuisine. Foodies in India will only be delighted to sample the treasure-trove of foods and drinks that Russia has to offer – from teas, soups and mains to pirozhki, desserts and alcohol. Awareness of Russo beverages in India is mostly limited to vodka, with very few being informed of Medovukha, kvass and other delicious thirst-quenchers. Contrariwise, the plethora of India dishes, desserts and drinks could do with some popularizing amidst Russians.

Photo Credit: http://www.moscowtopnews.com/?area=postView&id=1469

Photo Credit: moscowtopnews.com

Sports is another arena where India has much to learn from its counterpart. Collaboration, especially in the fields of tennis, ice-skating, hockey and track-sports, will benefit both the countries. This will also open up avenues for sportsmen and coaches to travel to each other’s cities and exchange knowledge and networks. Russia can also take advantage of the unique climatic conditions in India that allow us to play many sports which may not be possible in the Russian climes. Cricket – a favourite with Indians can gain traction in Russia and help erase the negative connotations that were associated with the game during the Communist Revolution. Similarly, Indian sports-enthusiasts can profit from the exposure to winter sports that Indian weather cannot afford.

India and Russia are both lands of many dances and genres of music. Dance and music conclaves will not only entertain public but also showcase the art forms that each country prides itself for. Circle-dances and partner dances also forge a sense of community and kinship among dancers. Both the countries have a rich heritage of folk and classical music, and have now welcomed and adapted to contemporary pop and rock styles. Dialogue and exchange in this space will prove rewarding for performers, instructors and students alike.

Photo Credit: http://www.wanderinglizard.com/Alaska/sitka/russiandance.html

Photo Credit: wanderinglizard.com

One cannot ignore literature when one talks of cultural exchange between Russia and India. Pushkin and Tagore took their local writing styles to the world, and then followed a slew of writers and poets who satiated their countrymen’s hunger for literary works. Their legacy must continue with Indian and Russian books being translated and made available in both the countries. Yearly literature-festivals that bring together writers, poets, critics, media and readers from Russia and India, will establish strong cultural ties amongst bibliophiles.

Tourism is a magical platform that can unite all the aforementioned domains and foster goodwill and warmth between India and Russia. Experiential sight-seeing which encompasses volunteer-tourism, social-work, student-exchange programs and also medical tourism can enable tourists, patients, students and volunteers to learn, heal, help and contribute at the same time. Travel-blogger conclaves, trade and technology fairs, and the introduction of a special Indo-Russian-cultural train (on the lines of Science Express and Sanskriti Express) can function as effective catalysts in brokering cultural cooperation between Russia and India.

“Our long-standing friendship needs just a little bit of spice

(and maybe some vodka) to take it to newer heights!”