Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Archive for the ‘Russia 2012’ Category

Ten Best Things about Russia

Posted by Lisa Hill on November 4, 2013

Back home again, and still scrapbooking our trip to Russia … I’ve had time to reflect and share my thoughts about it all.  While Aussie tourists have been ubiquitous on all our previous travels, in Russia we found ourselves exotic.  ‘From Avstralia’, they would say in delighted astonishment, ‘a long way!

Well, yes, of course it is, but Australia is a long way away from everywhere and the long-haul flight to Moscow isn’t much different to a long-haul flight to London or Paris or Rome.  The tyranny of distance doesn’t explain why so few of us venture to Russia.  So, here are my Ten Best Things about Russia to entice you!

1.  Visiting Russia will clear your head of all those obsolete grey Cold War preconceptions that you have from the movies.  Moscow is a dynamic, exciting city full of interesting things to see; St Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

2.  Russia is a booklovers’ paradise.  They are justifiably proud of their literary heritage and visiting the homes of Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky is a wonderful experience.  Allow more time than we did so that you can go to the Pushkin Museum too.

3. Russian churches are breath-taking.  Somehow the best ones survived Stalin’s aggressive atheism and German vindictiveness in defeat, and the Russians are brilliant at restorations.  Because these churches are Orthodox they are quite different to anything you can see elsewhere, and if you are lucky you will also hear spine-tingling a cappella male voice choirs.  (There are no musical instruments used in Russian Orthodox Churches).

4. Russian palaces and the museums now within them are spectacular.  The Hermitage is only one of a number of amazing palaces.  The tsars were the billionaires of their day and they, their friends and relations had so much money they didn’t know what to do with it all.   They built astonishing palaces all over the place and filled with them with marvellous treasures.  The Soviets flogged some of it off and the Germans trashed a lot of it, but there is still so much left that you could spend weeks just admiring it all. (See some here).

5.  The Moscow Metro is brilliant.  Do what we did, spend a couple of hours doing a circuit of it so that you can see the best of this architectural extravaganza.  Marble walls, monstrous chandeliers, propaganda sculptures and carvings showcase all kinds of aspects of Soviet life, each station with a different theme.  You’ll probably need a guide so you don’t miss the best ones, Krushchev put a stop to Stalin’s grandiose ‘gift’ to the Soviet people and the stations built in his time are positively Spartan.

5.  Russia’s history is more than fascinating and visiting the actual sites of great moments in history is an experience that is more than mere tourism.  In the palaces and churches are stories of Tsars ignoble and poignant,  elsewhere you will hear about their tumultuous 20th century when they were a social laboratory under the Soviets, transformed from the extreme social inequity of Tsarist autocracy to experimental Communism, and then catapulted into modern capitalism and democracy.  There will be references to what they demurely call ‘Soviet Times’ when they were traumatised by Stalinism and repressed by a string of Soviet dictators.  And in so many places restored from the scorched earth barbarism of World War 2, you will come to understand their catastrophic losses in World War 2, with 9 million military deaths, more than 11 million civilians, and two million Soviet Jews sent to their deaths in the Holocaust.  Because most of my generation grew up under Cold War hostility, I think that most tourists would gain a different perspective from learning about all this.  I know that I did.

6.  Russian people are friendly, helpful, delighted by pitiful attempts to speak their language and tolerant of tourists who won’t even try.  Younger people have learned English at school, and though some of them may not be very good at it, they are clever about guessing what you are asking.  You will find it easier if you try to learn their alphabet, or at least carry a phrase book that has an alphabet that you can use to read the names of streets and train stations.  But in restaurants where no one speaks English you will find that they are more nervous about getting it wrong than you are.

7. The tourist areas of Moscow and St Petersburg feel safe.  Not once in a fortnight did we feel uneasy, even when we were on our own without a tour guide.  I suspect that you are more likely to be pick-pocketed in Rome.

8. St Petersburg is only an hour from Berlin, and much more fun. Getting the visa is the only tedious part.

9. It is possible to spend a great holiday in Russia without eating any cabbage.

10. It is not possible to spend a holiday in Russia without trying some neat vodka. Good quality, expensive vodka is much better than the stuff you use in mixed drinks.

Posted in Russia 2012 | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

A Foodie’s Paradise, the St Petersburg Market

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 2, 2012

The Saturday traffic isn’t nearly so bad as the weekday chaos in St Petersburg, so we arrived a little early for our tour of the Dostoyevsky Museum.  That conveniently allowed time for a tour of the St Petersburg Market!

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Dostoyevsky Museum, St Petersburg

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 2, 2012

We spent our last day in St Petersburg at the Dostoyevsky Museum.

Like some of the other tours we’ve attended, the tour consists of transport provided by the tour company and the services of an interpreter who translates for the local guide.  It was like this at the Tolstoy and Chekhov estates and although I suppose it’s possible to go independently, (which may be cheaper) it has been a real pleasure to hear from local guides who are experts on their topics and have a passion for their work.

So it was today where the local guide enthused about Dostoyevsky, so much so that the interpreter apologised afterwards for not quite keeping up with her, but we didn’t mind at all.  It was a great experience to go through his house – one of many that he lived in, but this is the one that he wrote The Brothers Karamazov in, and the one that he died in, aged only 59.

The house had been subdivided during ‘Soviet Times’ (as locals call the era) but it has now been restored to the way that it would have been during Dostoyevsky’s lifetime.  They peeled off 20 layers of wallpaper and then made reproductions of the original, and they have decorated it with authentic furniture, including the author’s own desk, the one where he was working when he died.

In the children’s bedroom you can see a poignant little note from his son, and also a rocking horse – Dostoyevsky was devastated by the deaths of two of his children: his daughter Sofia died when an infant, and his son Aleksei died of epilepsy when only three.

In the study of his second wife Anna you can see her account books and her abacus where she kept meticulous records of their money.  Despite his fame, the family was often in debt, partly because he was a gambler but also because he had spent time in prison due to the political nature of his works. (Apparently Anna’s family was none too keen on the marriage because he was disreputable, but she was crazy about him so they married anyway).

There are family photographs on the walls, and in the reception room there are photos of the notables who came to visit Dostoyevsky once he became famous.  I thought it was rather sad that in the last home of an author who died of lung disease, they have kept his last packet of tobacco on display under a glass case.

There is also an exhibition of photos and facsimiles of his manuscripts, and of course, a monument outside!

Update: November 2013

I’m still scrapbooking this trip, and I’ve realised that I skipped a whole day of the tour.

It was the day we went to the Yuspov Palace, and had lunch at the Renaissance Hotel afterwards.

The Yusopov Palace is, apparently, one of 57 palaces owned by the Yusopovs but it was Felix Yusopov’s favourite.  It features a theatre, because it wasn’t respectable for princesses to attend the theatre, so they built one in-house.   The palace is famous for being the site of Rasputin’s murder, a bizarre tale, which you can read about at Wikipedia.

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Russian Museum, The Benois WingAfter that we took a walk and ended up at the Benois Wing of the ‘Russian Museum’, which is mostly 20th century Russian Art.  Here’s a link to a virtual tour of it.  

And we had dinner at the Vodka Museum, which has over 200 different kinds of vodka to try, which may be why I didn’t get round to writing about the day …

Posted in Historic buildings, LitLovers pilgrimage, Museums, Russia 2012, St Petersburg 2012 | Tagged: , , , , | 9 Comments »

Summer Palace at Peterhof

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 31, 2012

After visiting Catherine’s palace at Pushkin, we then went to the Summer Palace of Peter the Great.  Built to rival Versailles on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, the Palace Park is the most spectacular I’ve seen. It has the world’s largest system of fountains adorned with stunning gold statuary.

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Catherine’s Palace at Pushkin

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 31, 2012

Another day in St Petersburg, another palace!

Well, actually, this one was outside St Petersburg at Pushkin, a satellite town beyond the St Petersburg periphery.  En route, we stopped at the Victory Monument, a most moving memorial to those who died in the defence of the city, then called Leningrad.  It was besieged by the Nazis for 900 days, and the number of people who died each day of starvation was so great that they had to be buried in mass graves.  According to our tour guide, almost everyone in St Petersburg has lost someone in the war so this memorial is of great emotional significance to the people here.  View pictures here, they are much better than mine.

While Leningrad/St Petersburg fought off the Nazi advance, Pushkin was occupied by the Nazis.  En route to the Palace we passed a memorial to the Jews who were sent to their deaths from here.  They also ransacked the Palace, which was built by Elizabeth (of the Many Dresses) in memory of her mother.  It’s home to the famous Amber Room which was destroyed by the Nazis and like most of the rest of the Palace has been entirely rebuilt.

To see more of this exquisite palace, visit the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum website.


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Posted in Palaces, Pushkin 2012, Russia 2012, St Petersburg 2012 | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Lavish interiors, in the Winter Palace at the Hermitage

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 30, 2012

One last post from me tonight, to share some of my photos from the Winter Palace at the Hermitage.  As we all know, all the Royals of Europe competed with each other to have the most lavish palaces and the most splendid art collections, and one thing we can certainly thank the Bolsheviks for is that they nationalised Catherine the Great’s extravaganza and added to it by nationalising all the other private collections in Russia as well.  (Mind you, they flogged off a fair bit of it when they were short of money most notably to American galleries and museums).

There are heaps of lovely books about the art works in the Hermitage and you can also see them online so I’ve confined myself to the interiors: massive chandeliers, some so big and heavy that none of us wanted to stand underneath them); tables inlaid with precious stones including one with grapes depicted in rubies; a gold clock in the shape of a huge bird which represents the ‘flight of time’; and massive urns made in precious stones such as jasper and lapis lazuli (which used to be placed lower on the ground so that they could be filled with chocolates for guests to help themselves).   There are rooms decorated with gold columns, frescoes, and tapestries, and also a ‘hall of heroes’ commemorating the great victory over Napoleon – where you will notice some green baize empty spaces amongst the portraits.  These empty spaces are those of heroes who died of wounds, and in the days before photography, not every man had a portrait suitable for hanging in a gallery such as this, but they commemorated their names anyway so that they wouldn’t be forgotten.  (The Duke of Wellington has his portrait in this gallery too, which pleased the British tourists among our group).

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Posted in Art Galleries, Museums, Palaces, Russia 2012, St Petersburg 2012 | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Historic moments – in the Hermitage

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 30, 2012

I’ll bet many tourists walk through a small and (by the standards of the rest of this lavish Palace) somewhat nondescript room in the Hermitage without having any idea that they are on the site of one of the most momentous events in the 20th century…

Small dining room where Lenin’s Bolsheviks stormed the Provisional government

Source: Virtual Excursions, Hermitage Museum

This is the ‘small dining room’ in the Winter Palace where in 1917 the Provisional Government of Nicholas II met.  (See the photo at left). This Provisional Government was a token effort by Nicholas to meet the demands for political reform, but it had no real power because he simply revoked any reforms that they made if he didn’t like what they had decided.   It certainly didn’t meet the demands of Lenin’s Bolsheviks and so on the 7th of October, they entered the palace from the main entrance (at right) and the west side and captured the Provisional Government as they met in this dining room.

Over on the mantelpiece there is a clock, stopped at ten past two, because that was the actual moment when the October Revolution began.  There is a plaque next to it which explains the significance of the room, but because it’s in Russian, most tourists won’t realise where they are unless they have a tour guide or (presumably) a guide book.  (Actually, the Hermitage is pretty good with signage – a lot of paintings and artefacts are captioned in both Russian and English but not this room).

It was an amazing experience to be standing right where one of the most significant events in the history of the 20th century took place!

Posted in Art Galleries, Historic buildings, Museums, Palaces, Russia 2012, St Petersburg 2012 | 2 Comments »

Gogol’s Restaurant, St Petersburg

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 30, 2012

Last night we took the advice of our genial tour guide, Igor, and went to dinner at Gogol’s Restaurant.  We were told that Gogol himself lived here, (and perhaps it is true) and there are Bookish touches throughout the restaurant, most notably the menu which has been crafted like a novel.  The restaurant is composed of several small rooms, so it is like eating in a 19th century home, and the waitresses are dressed in simple 19th century costumes.

There is always a risk with places like this that are designed to reel in the tourists, that the food will be a disappointment, but no.  We dined with five of our new friends from the tour group – two fellow-Aussies from Heathmont in Melbourne, an American couple from New York, and a Professor of Fine Arts from the UK, and all of us enjoyed our choices.

I forgot to photograph our second courses (possibly because our Languedoc wine was so nice), but you can see our entrees in the slideshow below.  Ron’s little pastries that look like ravioli are white fish pelmeni; that little glass on the plate of fish is vodka with horseradish (which Tim said was delicious); the Prof had an excellent borscht, and Betsy had black ‘milk’ Siberian mushrooms.  Mine was a prawn salad with a delicious cherry sauce, and Tony’s was an excellent eggplant salad.   You can also see the scrumptious homemade breads as well.  The service was excellent, and the ambience a delight.  Good company, good Russian cuisine – what more could we want, eh?

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Posted in Dining out, Historic buildings, LitLovers pilgrimage, Russia 2012, St Petersburg 2012 | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

St Petersburg – Antiquities in the Hermitage

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 30, 2012

Our friends and relations all know that this year Tim is studying classics at Monash, and that he very nobly briefly abandoned his studies to travel with me to Russia….

Well, this post is for him to show his tutor that he has not been slacking off while we’re away.  Today we spent most of the afternoon exploring the antiquities in the Hermitage, and since not many people travel to Russia, it’s quite possible that she has never seen some of the treasures that I have photographed here.  You’ll notice that I’ve also photographed some of the captions, but most of them were in Russian which made it a bit tricky to identify some of the pharaohs!

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Posted in Art Galleries, Museums, Palaces, Russia 2012, St Petersburg 2012 | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

St Petersburg: St Isaac’s Cathedral

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 29, 2012

St Isaac’s Cathedral is just around the corner from our hotel, the Renaissance Baltic, and like all the other churches we’ve seen today it’s splendid.  Unlike the others, however, it’s a museum, not a religious building, though apparently church leaders are campaigning to have it returned to them.

Among the many impressive aspects are the massive doors.  There are three of them, carved  by Ivan Vitali, with reliefs of Christ and the saints, and the main ones weigh 20 tons.  Understandably they’re not opened very often, most recently on the 300th anniversary of the city, and before that in 1917 during the Revolution.   Unusual in a Russian church, there is also a stained glass window which is the centrepiece of the iconostasis (the royal doors, which correspond to where an altar would be in a Christian church).  Again there are all kinds of precious stones but the most amazing of all are two priceless columns of lapiz lazuli, some of which had to be imported from Afghanistan.  When you think how expensive a small piece of lapis lazuli jewellery is, these columns must be worth a king’s ransom.

All these splendours, however, were created at enormous human cost.  The gold leaf on the turrets was applied by to a mercury base which was heated to secure the gold leaf – and the serfs who worked on it all died from mercury poisoning.  Building went on all year round, right throughout Russia’s frigid winter, and hundreds of serfs perished in the cold and damp.  And, while not the same kind of tragedy, the architect who came from Italy as a young man and spent his entire life building it, was denied his last request to be buried there because it was against Russian church tradition.  His widow took his body back to Italy where he lies in an unknown grave.   You can see a bust of this remarkable man, Auguste de Montferrard, in the slideshow.

St Isaac’s was our last stop for the day.  After a short rest we went out for dinner to Gogol’s – a gorgeous restaurant where Gogol the author wrote Dead Souls. My other bookish moment for the day was a glimpse of the monument to Peter the Great, which I read about it Andrei Bely’s Petersburg.  Hopefully I’ll get back there to take a proper picture in due course.

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Posted in Cathedrals & churches, Historic buildings, Russia 2012, St Petersburg 2012 | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »