“What do you think would be the probability that we would test positive for Covid?” – Rupayan whispered to my ears as the pilot announced that we are preparing our landing in Moscow.
Over the last 7 days I had travelled from Bangalore to Silchar, got wedded on the coveted 02-02-2022 date, came back to Kolkata, had a reception, flew to Delhi, met probably a gazillion people and then alighted the Air India flight that was now prepping to land in Moscow. It made sense that we were slightly apprehensive as to what would happen if we had to undergo a RT-PCR after landing in Moscow and what-if that turned out to be positive.
Our apprehension soon turned to be a moot point because for the next 10 days that we would be in Russia it would turn out to be one of the most liberal places with respect to covid protocols. And soon our covid woes gave way to others as we realised that the matrix SIM card we have taken from Delhi airport was not working and the driver who was supposed to pick us up was not there. So, we didn’t have a working phone network and we had also just realised that the Russians don’t speak English. At all. While Rupayan kept strolling around the pickup point in search of someone who understood English, the driver thankfully popped in after 30 mins. Lesson learnt very early, we had Google translator installed on our phones. Over the next few days this would be our ears and mouth. Logistics set, let me skip to the good part now...
Moscow oozes the feeling that is in fact the capital of a superpower even if the economy can be debated as a developing one. We hardly touched the ground and 6 monster flyovers took us to our destination which was a good 30kms from Sheremetyevo airport.
Our stay was booked at Izmailovo hotel group, a huge property which had different categories of accommodation. The room made our stay more attractive with the wide wonderful view of Moscow city from our window. The array of lights had lit up on the white snowy carpet that the city seemed to have put in on itself. The 0 degree chill had magically disappeared as we entered the hotel. The hotel had 12 in house restaurant. My hunger pangs had started growling and without further delay we checked into an authentic Russian restaurant for hunger relief. We realised that unsurprisingly the food culture of Russia is way different than India and pretty bland for people like me.
Waking up on 10th morning, it was a snowy day as we began our visits to the top sights of Moscow. 1st stop was at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior on the northern bank of the Moskva River, in a wonderful surrounding with a beautiful bridge next to it. The architecture of the church was grandeur. The chilly but cosy weather, the sprinkling of cottony snow, the view and the company all together created a perfect romantic gateway for us. Next stop was Victory park which is dedicated in honour of the Soviet victory in world war 2. We took a tour there & also covered Triumphal Arch which stood tall marking Russia’s victory over Napoleon. After taking some couple pictures as token of honeymoon trip in snowfall, we headed to Red Square taking the glimpse of Novodevichy Convent on the way.
A different world awaited us as we entered the Red Square. It is difficult to put Red Square into words because it is a world of contrasts. On one hand you feel like entering a fairytale with bright colourful shops playing folk music. In front of it is the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral which looks like a real-life Aladdin’s Castle. Finally, the Kremlin on the other side represents the power of Russia and that is inextricably linked to the most important political and historical events. And all this while, the revolutionary Lenin’s mausoleum resting in peace just beside.
Rupayan knew what I truly wanted from this cacophony of views.
My Wish: Lift me up in front of Aladdin’s Castle
My own personalised Genie: Done and Clicked
Right next to state historical museum at Red Square lies the tomb of the unknown soldier. Change of guards happen every hour and we were fortunate to see that in front of the everlasting flame. Our Russian guide Tanya made us experience the Russian dessert, honey cake and Russian vodka shots at a cafe in between. She finally dropped us at the famous GUM shopping centre gifting a beautiful postcard made by local Artists. As the sun was setting down, the orange sky and its reflection made the Red Square even more beautiful.
The collateral involved in travelling with a foodie partner is that the shopping spree is bypassed. Instead, you get to indulge in the food varieties available around. This time we had a pasta cooked in a vessel made of cheese and some poke. GUM shopping centre hosts many luxury brands and some of those I realised were more expensive that our entire trip! Since it was our 1st day at minus temp, we got tired a little faster than usual and chose to come back early in the evening.
Day 2 started with a small visit to Izmailovo kremlin. This is a very small village/market situated right behind our hotel. Due to winter the market was closed. However, it seemed that winter had thought of draping the authentic Russian revival architecture in a beautiful white sheet. We created an Instagram reel here just so that after a few years we could remind ourselves what heaven might truly look like. I was of course reluctant to go anywhere else but after a few nudges we started on our next stop. This was riding the Moscow cable car across the Moskva river. The snow-clad banks of the river looked amazingly beautiful from our car and after landing on the other side of the river we could take a sneak peek into the immense stadium where the football world cup had taken place in 2018.
Moscow has an excellent Metro network that connects every part of the city. Unlike India there is a flat price of 60 Rubles (~ Rs 70) for a ride regardless of the length. This is when we realised that if we have a map and just understand the subway signs, we don’t need any expensive cabs or rental cars. We were now traveling towards Red Square once again. Rupayan had a wish to kiss me in front of Kremlin tower clock. He mentioned something about expressing love in front of one of the most powerful symbols in the world. Red Square and Kremlin had lit up in its full evening glory by the time we reached. I must say the ambience really complimented as he fulfilled his fantasy.
Coming out in the high street, the entire place was dressed up to augur Valentine’s Day. With fancy lights, fully adorned structures sparkling everywhere it was as if they had decorated it just for us. And amidst this graceful splendour stood The Bolshoi Theatre reflecting the cultural glory of the country. A three-person musical troupe was performing in front of theatre hall and passers-by joined them either in singing or dancing. My heart was leaping in joy and I wanted to prance along as well. Rupayan, is normally averse to dancing and I had seldom seen him so. But thousands of kilometres from home where no one knows you coupled with this once-in-a-lifetime ambience even got the better of him. And right in the heart of the city, we did a few salsa steps along with dozens of others. I guess these are the small moments which remains etched in the memories than the actual tourist checkpoints.
While going back to the hotel we sneaked to Izmailovo kremlin again and it didn’t disappoint us. A cosy gathering, some live music and a small local shop selling hot mulled wine to provide respite in the chilling winter night. And while we sip on the wine and start returning to the hotel, the random cottony snowfall started. The chill of the weather, the warm wine and a loved one by the side – Moscow couldn’t be any better than this.
Next day we flew to Murmansk (dated 12-02-2022). But Aurora Borealis and a partially frozen Artic Ocean deserves a separate cover.
The search for a honeymoon destination started almost 6 months back. We wanted to go somewhere which was outside the popular clique of destination. Plus, the threat of Covid was something we had to navigate as well. The shortlisted candidates were Canary Islands, Russia and Philippines. In the end, Russia won simply because of the direct flight connectivity and lax covid protocols it provided.
As we were travelling towards our hotel, we realised that in spite of being in the same country St. Petersburg was vastly different from Moscow. While Moscow oozed political power and strength of a superpower nation, St. Petersburg was the cultural capital of the country. Built on similar lines as any of the beautiful European cities, even our stay at the Holiday Express Inn was designed in heritage European architecture style. We checked into the hotel and then went into a Hard Rock café just a block ahead. True to American style, the platter we ordered had 7 type of meat preparation and even by looking at it, my dinner was done. We then went out for a leisurely stroll in the neighbourhood trying to gulp the exquisite architecture. It was like every direction you looked it there was an invitation from a famous building or a church or a monument. One more difference between Moscow and St. Petersburg seemed to dawn on us. While in Moscow people were indifferent to the point of arrogance, here they were eager to help us out. When Google Maps faltered, there was always a good Samaritan guiding us to the right direction.
The next day started with our early morning rush to clinic for RT-PCR test. This would be required since a negative test report was mandatory while returning to our motherland. Russians are punctual to the T and our beautiful guide Swetlana was already waiting in the lobby when we came back. Thanks to the friendly hotel staffs of the hotel who packed us some breakfast even though breakfast time was over.
Our first stop was at Nikolo Bogoyavlenskiy Morskoy Sobor or St. Nicholas Naval cathedral which is an orthodox cathedral. The combination of white and sky blue colour of the church was magnificent and I was astounded to know that it was chosen to match the eye colour of the then princess. This church nourished the sailors of the Russian fleet. Inside of the church was decorated with iconic paintings and images.
We then drove down to St.Issac’s Cathedral but we couldn’t enter as it was only allowed for people with Sputnik vaccine! Swetlana gave us a tour to the royal Astoria hotel right next to that. It was dripping in history, as it is the same hotel where Hitler was supposed to give a speech after conquering Russia. That never turned into reality though.
The roads of certain places of the city were dirty & slippery unlike a cleaner Moscow we had seen. It was the only trivial thing that contradicted the architectural elegance of the St. Petersburg city. We stopped for a while by the frozen Neva River to witness the palaces and get the city view along with the beautifully designed Troitskiy bridge connecting each side. Our next destination, Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood Church, is named as the incident marks the assassination of Emperor Alexander II. Contrary to its history the beauty of the each and every colourful marbles simply gave it a look of a castle. Our guide Swetlana had just learnt that we had been married hardly 10 days before on 02/02/2022. Her first question was what had we done to choose such a fantastic date. Then she took us to a bridge famous for newlyweds to have a prosperous life just opposite to the church. Not sure about the cultural belief but it gave a beautiful view of the church.
St. Petersburg is a city made up of 33 islands and is also referred to as the Venice of the North. Hence the city is connected by 342 bridges each one more beautiful than the other. Due to winter, boating through canals were closed. And I told Rupayan that this means we have to come back again in summer. The existence of the city is inextricably linked to the sea. The city has so much to offer that it seemed we had too few days to experience it fully. We kept driving through the city sighting the landmarks and dropping by a few.
It was raining throughout the day maintaining a temperature of minus 2-3 degrees. Swetlana said that this part of Russia sees the sun only 60 days in a year and jokingly added this results in making gloomy Russian villains in Hollywood movies.
St. Petersburg is home to the Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world. We went to the square of state hermitage museum from where the expansive general staff building can be seen too. We took pictures at Alexander column to capture the aerial view and headed to the new Hermitage and state Russian museum.
By this time, our hunger pangs had started and we asked Swetlana for suggestions. She was struggling to think of something that would be conducive to our tastebuds and was relieved when we mentioned that we would rather try ethnic cuisine. She dropped us at a famous Georgian restaurant and requested a short feedback video which we were equally glad to give. True to Swetlana’s word the restaurant was superb. Apparently, their Georgian cuisine is even better than the one in Georgia. We kept trying Dolma of minced lamb, some soupy rice, Khinkali which is a cousin of our Indian momo filled with Soup inside etc. All this while having a view of the magnificent Kazan Cathedral in front of us.
Kazan Cathedral with a colonnade of 96 Corinthian columns is a masterpiece standing right in the heart of the city. Spending an hour right there we walked into Eliseyev Emporium and finally got a chance to shop to our heart’s content.
Who wants to miss a tram ride at a foreign city, so Rupayan made me walk 2 kms to catch a tram towards our hotel. They accept only pass cards for rides or tap to pay local bank cards but seeing the foreign tourists the driver gentleman accepted cash payments. As we alighted at our hotel stop after an overwhelming day I realised I had fallen in love with the city. I was already making plans for a summer visit to St. Petersburg.
We almost skipped a panic attack on 16th morning as Rupayan received his PCR report but mine was yet to come and as I had mentioned earlier it was a no internet, no network trip for us. We had to leave the hotel because we were getting late for our departing flight and as soon as we stepped out, we had no way of getting my report. Heartfelt gratitude to our driver to Airport who helped us with his personal hotspot Wi-Fi and we could get the report on time. It helped that the Russian driver turned up as Raj Kapoor fan and he used to watch old Bollywood Movies with his mom. We were wow struck to know that he wants to visit India and is literally saving money for that trip. We shared our contact details and requested him to let us know as it would be our pleasure to host him in our country.
Rupayan by the time completed the host of formalities for checking into our Air India flight. We bought the permitted alcohol from the duty-free because it is extremely cheap in Russia almost half of the price at the cheapest place in India.
This was on 16th February that we boarded the return flight. Exactly a week after Vladimir Putin would announce the war on Ukraine. Irrespective of the political ideology, it is hard to deny the churn it would bring on the world. From lives lost, to destruction of property, to oil shocks, inflation, food shortage it continues to impact lives all over the world. My biggest regret continues to be that because of this, people all over the world will continue to disregard Russia as a travel destination. And that is an irreplaceable loss because the wonders Russia provide are countless. Even a change of plan by a week could have resulted in a very different experience for us.
As we boarded our return flight and I closed my eyes our last night flashed in my mind. A lovely candlelight dinner date at a fine dining Italian restaurant with the choicest champagne, pate and gourmet desserts to beautifully mark the end of our once-in-a-lifetime honeymoon trip. As we strolled to our hotel, minds replaying the last few days, hands grasped together and our hearts reluctant to go back, we had both realised this was truly the best trip of our lives. Yet!