A journey is best measured in friends, rather than in miles - Tim Cahill
We had met in Delhi after a gap of 25 years on the occasion of silver jubilee of passing out of college. It was then that four of my classmates and I had decided to go on an all women's trip to relive our old camaraderie in a new place, in a different city, maybe in a different country.
Thus, began the search for a tour company and we got in touch with SOTC holidays for their World Tour Packages.
For us Indians, Russia generally does not come across as a top destination of choice for tourism as it is perceived as a cold and distant place, off the radar. But, that was precisely the reason why we chose Russia.
As Aldous Huxley has said -
To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.
SOTC Holidays suggested a customized tour package for us to two Russian cities - Moscow and St Petersburg. We decided to grab this opportunity to see the present capital and the past capital of Russia. It took us about a month of planning and coordination to finalize the tour and finally in the 3 rd week of August, we set off on a five day trip to St Petersburg and Moscow. Our itinerary included 3 days of stay in St. Petersburg and 2 days in Moscow, with guided city tours scheduled on the 2 nd and 5 th day of the trip.
Delhi was the starting point of our group tour (three of my friends stay in Delhi). Boarding the early morning flight from Delhi, we landed in Moscow. From there we got onto the flight for St. Petersburg. Strangely, we had to check out our luggage at Moscow and after completing the immigration, check in again on the flight to St Petersburg. It was a short flight. In one and a half hours, we were in St. Petersburg, the city known for its art, splendid architecture, beautiful gardens, magnificent cathedrals and the largest museum in Europe,
Arrival at St Petersburg
A young lady named Jane received us at the airport at St Petersburg and accompanied us to our hotel in the van. On the way, she briefed us a little on the city. The driver spoke only Russian though. The weather was pleasantly warm. We reached hotel Marco Polo by 1.30 pm and checked into the two rooms that were booked for the five of us. By 4.00 pm, we were all set to go out and explore the port city, which is sometimes referred to as the Venice of the North.
The hotel was of old construction. It did not have a lift, but the staff arranged for our luggage to be carried up to our rooms. The lady at the concierge spoke English. She kindly offered to take us around to a currency exchange counter, where we exchanged USD for Rubles. She also booked a taxi for us that took us to the Hermitage, one of the world's best and largest museums - considered at par with Louvre in Paris.
With the tickets that we had booked online, we entered the Winter Palace of the museum, which had for long served as the official residence of the Russian monarchs. The palace, with its enormous halls, famous marble staircase (Jordan Staircase), gilded wall mouldings, dazzling white marble statues is an epitome of elegance and luxury. Parts of the palace still retain the original 18th-century style. It gave us a glimpse of the ostentatious lifestyle of the Tsars.
After the museum closed down at 6 pm, we strolled around in the Palace Square. While I was admiring the enormous curved façade of the museum, I heard two of my friends discussing the design of rainwater pipes. Civil engineers never miss a chance to talk about drainage! We took a taxi back to the hotel. The next day was marked for the guided city tour.
Guided City Tour of St Petersburg
"Dobroe utro!" greeted our tour guide when we met him at the hotel reception on the next morning. At 10 AM, we set out for our city tour in a minivan. Our guide briefed us on the historic significance of the various places that we crossed, stopping at the spots from where we could get the most picturesque views of the city.
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood and Kazan Cathedral
After a couple of clicks by the side of River Neva, we proceeded to Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. The tour included a view from outside, but after seeing the beautiful medieval Russian architecture on the exterior of the cathedral we were tempted to purchase the tickets and have a look inside. I was glad that we did so, for the entire interior is covered in beautiful mosaics depicting many scenes from the bible. Out of the Cathedral, we walked through the cobblestone street with open shops on one side selling souvenirs and the canal flowing on the other. On a footbridge, we clicked some pictures with characters in costumes.
Just across the road was the impressive Kazan Cathedral, built in a distinctive European style. The entrance to the Cathedral is free. Here, too, we got to see some fabulous interiors, with numerous sculptures and icons created by the best Russian artists of the times.
St. Issac's Cathedral
The next stop was at St. Issac's Cathedral, which is the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the city. Our guide purchased the tickets and took us inside. That was a sight to behold! In the grand hall were several brightly coloured mosaic pictures covering every inch of the walls and ceiling of the cathedral. Tall green and blue columns of Malachite and Lapiz Lazuli framed the iconostasis.
After the visit to the cathedral, while the rest of the group went for shopping at the Nevsky Prospekt, I along with one friend decided to stay back and go to the top of the Colonnade. A climb of about 300 spiral steps leads to a landing. From there, a straight staircase with transparent sides goes up to the top. From the midway of the last flight, when I looked down, I did feel a little jittery but the climb was definitely worth the view.
After the city tour, four of my friends decided to go for the circus, while I went back to the Hermitage to see the General Staff Building and Menshikov Palace.
Peterhof Palace, Russian Folklore Show
On the third day, we were on our own. We ventured out to Peterhof Palace, which is situated some 25 km west of St. Petersburg. Taking the Metro, we changed lines and managed to reach the place without the slightest knowledge of Russian. The huge palace garden decorated with fountains and statues was extremely soothing to the senses. Suddenly, the weather cooled down a lot and it started raining. After some time, we made a retreat.
In the evening, the clouds had cleared. We went to see a Russian folklore show at Nikolaevsky Palace.
City tour of Moscow
Early next morning, we were driven down to the station. Taking the SAPSAN train at 7 AM, we reached Moscow in four hours. With its modern steel and glass buildings, Moscow appeared to be starkly different. But after we went to the Old Arbat Street in the evening, we got a flavour of the old Moscow, with its historical buildings, outdoor cafes, souvenir stores, and street performers.
Red Square and Kremlin
The guided city tour on the next day included a visit to the famous Red Square and Kremlin Territory+ Cathedrals including Bell tower of Ivan, Tsar Bell, Tsar Canon. The first spot where we stopped during the guided city tour was the Red Square, Kremlin area. Our guide Nataliya told us that the name Red Square is derived from the word 'Krasnaya', which means 'beautiful', and 'red' in Russian. She purchased the tickets and we went into the adjacent Kremlin Territory, where we saw the Tsar Bell, the Tsar Canon and four Cathedrals.
We walked over to the legendary St Basil's Cathedral, which is one of the most photographed sights in Moscow, after which we entered the GUM mall, the largest shopping mall in Moscow. Check out the details in the post below.
Read: Red Square Kremlin - A walk through the heritage sites in Moscow
Metro Stations in Moscow
Taking the Metro, we went to Arabat Street where our van was waiting. Moscow has some of the most beautiful metro stations in the world that are a must see for any tourist. With its chandeliered ceilings and Baroque-style decor, Mayakovskaya station resembles a grand ballroom, while Kiyevskaya station is decorated with classical paintings. Then we drove down to Poklonnaya Hill and stopped at the Moscow State University.
The guided tour concluded at 6 pm and we got down at a restaurant for dinner. All of a sudden it started pouring so heavily that by the time we reached the hotel we were completely drenched.
On the third day, we went around and explored the neighbouring areas before taking the flight back.
Since our stay was of a very limited duration, the customised package worked well for us. The guided city tour ensured the efficient use of time, while the free days gave us the chance to explore on our own. The choice of hotel in St Petersburg was good and in Moscow was excellent. The guides and the girls who accompanied from airport to the hotel and back were very friendly, enthusiastic and helpful. Overall, it was a wonderful experience to explore new places with old friends and create new memories while reliving the old ones.
"We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us."
To plan your holiday trips with SOTC Holidays, find their Vacation Packages here.
Travel tips: It is advisable to book the tickets for Hermitage Museum and the folklore or ballet shows online to avoid the long queue. Booking taxi from the hotel is recommended. Uber taxis are also available. For other taxis, it is best to negotiate the price before getting into the taxi. It helps to carry a Matrix Card from India for making local and international calls. If you want pictures with characters dressed in costumes, negotiate the price per picture before clicking. Sturdy walking shoes and umbrella are a must along with hat, cap, scarves or mufflers and appropriate woollens for the season. Euro and USD can easily be exchanged for Ruble. Try not to exchange much of your money in and around the airport. Better exchange rates can be obtained from banks or from currency exchange counters. A universal adapter comes in handy for charging the electronic devices. If you need one, just scroll down to get it on Amazon.