Russian Rendezvous

As 2013 came around, makeup artist Tamanna’s planning began. A group of seven couples and their children, Tamanna and her friends take annual trips with one main criterion: the destination must be uncommon. Having journeyed in the past to Beirut and Iran, they decided to make a trip to a place that had been on some of their lists for decades – Mother Russia.

We’re a close-knit group of couples and children. My husband and I are the planners, and since visiting Saint Petersburg has been a childhood dream of his (and everyone else was game), we decided to go to Russia this year.


 
This trip was particularly hard to plan, partly because we were required to reserve everything four months in advance. Not only did we have to book tickets to and from (and within!) Russia, we had to do the same for our hotels and even the shows we wanted to see. It was a tedious process, but it was well worth the trouble.
 
Our itinerary was quite simple – Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Though Russia is an expensive place, we were determined to see everything we could in this must-visit country. Twenty-four of us travelled from New Delhi to Moscow, where we stayed in the Hilton Leningradskaya and where there is a lot of sightseeing to be done. We went to all the usual tourist spots – the Kremlin, Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Bolshoi Theatre, Arbat Street, the Pushkin Museum and Gorky Park. Many of these places are within a few kilometres of each other.
 
What I loved at the Red Square was a place with four corners – you can throw a coin and wish for something, and it is believed that depending on where your coin falls, your wish may be fulfilled. The fountains all over Moscow were beautiful, too, especially those around the Bolshoi. Arbat Street is a popular place with several eateries; walking around, you’ll find some of the fanciest, most expensive cars and many artists at work. Art, in fact, is a prominent part of Russia; creativity runs through their veins. Even the paintings on Arbat Street were expensive!

We travelled from Moscow to Saint Petersburg in a popular, luxurious express train. The journey was so exciting and exotic, the coupés very fancy, and the train even had a bar! Though the whole thing was rather pricey, it was a very beautiful and memorable ride. Everything was so well-maintained, and we were looked after quite earnestly. The coupés had fruits, nuts, tea, coffee and other food on offer. Some more luxurious items, like caviar, were available on request (and charged extra, of course!).
 
As in Iran, food in Russia is a big barrier for vegetarians. Luckily, we knew to carry packaged, microwavable foods. But because we were in a hotel in Moscow, heating that food was a problem. We decided to stay in serviced apartments in Saint Petersburg, and the ones we chose were by Holiday Inn. This made our stay very pleasant and comfortable, especially because we were travelling with children.
 
In Saint Petersburg we hired an English-speaking guide, a task that had proved rather difficult. But unlike the metropolitan Moscow, Saint Petersburg was more welcoming and the people much kinder. Ballets and folk shows are popular sources of entertainment and culture; these lively shows were so intriguing! I found Saint Petersburg to be much prettier than Moscow, too. Since everything is connected by canals, it makes for a magical picture. Small boats float on the water, and travelling usually means a boat ride. In fact, Saint Petersburg is often called the ‘Venice of the North’.

Bridges connecting the land on either side of the canals come alive after sunset, and this is when one of our unforgettable experiences took place. In Saint Petersburg, the nightlife only kicks off after 11 pm. Since the bridges are only a few feet above the water, big boats and yachts can’t pass underneath. Lights on the bridges come on at night, and these decorated structures open up to let the boats pass. It’s a gorgeous sight to see – huge cruise ships passing by, just feet away.

Alongside the thousands who watch the bridges go up, cheering and celebrating life, we hired a boat on which to party. Food and alcohol were arranged, and we hired a guide. We partied the night away on the boat and though it was an icy 3°C, we were so happy and awestruck by the beauty. Words cannot describe the feeling!
 
You must visit this city at least once. The Peterhof Palace is fascinating, and there are so many museums in it that it’s impossible to get the whole experience in just one day. We also bought authentic Russian dolls, or matryoshkas. They’re beautifully handcrafted. At one of the restaurants, we were served some amazing Russian vodka. It’s so smooth that it just slides down your throat, and so easy to drink that you’ll be in high spirits in no time! We tried some Russian caviar, too; there were mixed opinions, but some of us just loved it. Eating out is an expensive ordeal, whether at a fancy restaurant or even at a fast food joint.

But more than the food or the beauty, it is the vibrant life and energy you find everywhere that makes Russia so incredible. Metro stations feature plenty of art – the talent Russia possesses is truly amazing – and a theme that’s followed by all design elements. One had mosaic, another had glasswork, and a third had mirrors, each with such unique character. One very special station is full of statues, one of which is believed to bring good luck.
 
 If you ever visit Russia, be careful as the country is notorious for its pickpockets. Despite being warned and extremely cautious, some of our group were victims. And the people (in Moscow especially) can be quite snobbish. If you aren’t dressed well or don’t arrive in an expensive car, there’s a chance you won’t be allowed into a bar or club. Nonetheless, it was a magnificent holiday – one I recommend to everyone.     – as told to Saloni