Friday, June 28, 2013

St. Petersburg: Peter and Paul Fortress

It was finally time for us to see and experience more of Russia by heading to St. Petersburg. We booked a first class cabin in the overnight train so that we could get a decent night's sleep and have enough energy for touring. We were lucky and thankful that when we arrived at our hotel at around 8:30 AM, the receptionist actually agreed to check us in, about 5 1/2 hours earlier than our official check-in time. Cool! This allowed us to get a bit more rest and cleaned up before heading out. Our first (and only stop) on our first day in St. Petersburg was the Peter and Paul Fortress.

We took the Ioannovsky Bridge into the Peter and Paul Fortress where you have pretty good views of the Neva river and the important and historic buildings on the opposite bank.

We noticed a lot of people converging on one side of the bridge and looking down. Here we spotted a statue of a rabbit that everyone was taking photos of and tossing coins at. I took a picture of it but didn't know its significance until the next day when our tour guide explained the significance of this statue. Unfortunately, I can't quite recall what it was LOL. I think that the rabbit represents Peter the Great and managing to land a coin on the piling is supposed to bring you luck or something good.

Within the fortress walls, you can find several areas of interest. Arguably the most important of these is the Peter and Paul Cathedral, whose towering gilded spire is a defining landmark in the city.

While the cathedral exterior is noteworthy, it's what you can find inside that is of great historical significance. Apart from the lavish gilded iconostasis, you can find the graves of most of Russia's prerevolutionary rulers, including Peter the Great (Peter I)...

...and Catherine the Great (Catherine II).

We quickly passed by the strange bronze statue of Peter the Great with its disproportionately small head. My mom actually managed to inadvertently catch a flying bird in the shot when she took my picture. Can you see it?

We skipped the climb to the top of the 122.5 m high bell tower despite the promise of a breathtaking panoramic view of the city from the top. We also got the combination entrance ticket that I thought included access to the Neva Panorama, a walking route along the fortress walls. Unfortunately, it didn't, and we didn't feel like paying extra. However, it was next to the entrance to the Neva Panorama that we spotted an opportunity to have photos taken while dressed as Russian royalty. Depending on the outfit, you pay 500 to 700 rubles and you are allowed to put on a dress and take photos with your own camera for 15 minutes. That seemed like a better use of our time and money so my mom went for it.

It started to rain so we decided to head indoors to the places that were included in our ticket. This included the Neva Curtain Wall where you can see "The History of Peter and Paul Fortress" display as well as a bronze replica of the gilded angel at the tip of the cathedral spire.

We then headed towards the Commandant's House where you will find a fascinating exhibit of the history of St. Petersburg. It includes several marvellous displays that depict how life in St. Petersburg was from 1703 to 1918.

Our final stop was the Trubetskoy Bastion. You can see the different cells of political prisoners from the 18th to the early 20th century.

It started raining a bit more heavily as we were about to leave so we stopped by one of the cafes in the fortress to have a late afternoon snack and some coffee. (The food here was actually pretty good.) By the time we stepped out, the sun was thankfully up again. We had nothing else planned that evening so we headed back to the hotel quite early to get some rest. After all, we had an 8-hour walking tour of St. Petersburg the next day. More on that in my next post.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Golden Ring: Vladimir and Suzdal

Given the length of our stay in Moscow, we had an opportunity to visit a few more cities on the Golden Ring. My book recommended visiting Suzdal and Vladimir but given the language barrier, I was a bit worried about traveling to these two cities by train and bus. Thankfully, Three Whales also offers a one-day private tour to Vladimir and Suzdal. So I booked this tour on our fifth day in Russia.

Vladimir was our first stop in this tour. This city, which is about 3 hours away from Moscow, was very important during the 12th century under the reign of Prince Andrei Bogolubyosky. It was during this time that two of the Vladimir's most important landmarks, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, were built. The first of these is the Golden Gate, a defensive tower and triumphal arch that you pass when you enter the city.

Our tour included a trip to the Military Museum inside the Golden Gate. Here, we learned more about the history of Vladimir. There is a diorama that showcases the fall of the city during the Mongol Invasion in 1237.

The other important landmark in the city is the Assumption Cathedral. This cathedral is very important in Russia because the Assumption Cathedral at the Kremlin in Moscow was modeled after this, and the Moscow church then served as model for the Assumption Cathedral built in Sergiev Posad. There was a religious ceremony that started once we completed our tour inside the cathedral, making our experience here even more interesting and memorable. 

There is a third UNESCO World Heritage site in Vladimir which was built after the death of Prince Andrei Bogolubyosky. The Cathedral of St. Dmitry stands a couple hundred meters from the Assumption Cathedral and is worth visiting to see the profusion of stone carvings that fill its exterior walls. Visitors are not allowed to enter this cathedral.

It was during this tour to Vladimir that we had our first official Russian meal at Traktir. We had a four-course meal that included a Russian salad, Borscht (a popular soup of Ukrainian origin), a chicken dish, and ice cream. It was a very satisfying meal that gave us energy for the rest of the day. (Lunch was included in our Three Whales tour.)

Once we had seen the key sights in Vladimir, we then made our way to Suzdal. My book said that if there is only one place on the Golden Ring that you visit, it should be Suzdal. This town is charming and idyllic, with its quaint wooden cottages and churches and monasteries that feature old Russian architecture. A trip to Suzdal is like stepping back in time and it is easy to understand why it is a very popular tourist destination.

We first visited the Saviour Monastery of St. Euthymius, Suzdal's biggest monastery. There are a few places of interest inside, including the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour with its green domes surrounding a central golden dome...

...and the Cathedral Bell Tower, which features a concert of chimes and bells every hour on the hour. Naturally, our tour guides (both Oleg from Three Whales and our local Vladimir and Suzdal tour guide) made sure we got to see this concert while we were there.

We then made our way to the beautiful Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life. In this open-air museum you will find a collection of preserved wooden buildings such as log cabins, barns, and windmills that have been brought here from different parts of the Vladimir region. Highlights here include the Transfiguration Church (on the left, which can only be viewed from the outside) and the Resurrection Church (on the right which visitors can enter).

Our final stop in this picturesque town was the Suzdal Kremlin ("kremlin" actually means a town or city's fortified stronghold). The most prominent structure here is the Cathedral of the Nativity, with its beautiful blue domes decorated with gold stars.

Similar to other Russian Orthodox churches, this cathedral features a dazzling interior, including an impressive iconostasis, several brilliant relics, and resplendent blue-themed frescoes that cover all the walls and pillars.

Our trip to the Kremlin also included a visit to the Suzdal History Exhibition in the Archbishop's Chambers. As our tour was pretty jampacked, we didn't have a lot of time to purchase souvenirs so my mom took some time at this museum to buy a few items. I would actually have loved to spend a lot more time just meandering about in Suzdal, taking in the sights and maybe even enjoying a carriage ride. Three Whales does provide an option for an overnight stay in Suzdal so if you have the time, this might be a good option to take.

Next up: St. Petersburg.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Golden Ring: Sergiev Posad

Visiting at least a couple of cities on the Golden Ring is recommended when you travel to Russia and spend more than a few days in Moscow. As such, I decided to sign up for a private tour by car of Sergiev Posad offered by Three Whales.

The main attraction when you visit Sergiev Posad is the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius. It was founded by St. Sergius, who is one of the most venerated saints of the Russian Orthodox Church. As such, it makes perfect sense that this monastery serves as the church's spiritual centre.

Our timing wasn't very good though. We went there on May 1 which was the start of a 5-day holiday in Russia so hundreds (thousands?) of people who live in Moscow headed out to their dachas located outside the capital. This means that the traffic was really bad on our way to Sergiev Posad and it took us an extra hour or more to get there. Also, the toy museum in the monastery, which features a good collection of Matryoshka dolls, was closed due to the long holiday. Finally, the monastery would be celebrating the 700th anniversary of St. Sergius next year (he was born on May 14, 2014) so the Cathedral of the Assumption was closed to the public as it was being renovated. Nevertheless, we still got to see an enjoy other parts of the monastery.

I think there is a law in Russia that allows only city or region locals to provide guided tours. As such, our Three Whales tour guide Oleg endorsed us to our local tour guide (I am not quite sure what his name was, I thought I heard him say Rustan but my mom heard Rusdal or something like that). We kicked off the guided tour underneath the archway entrance which is decorated with murals of the life and eventual canonization of St. Sergius.

Our tour guide then took us to the Trinity Cathedral, which is a very important part of the monastery as St. Sergius' incorrupt relics are kept here. There was a bit of a long line to get in and photos are not allowed inside. Women also have to wear head scarves when they enter the cathedral.

To round out our tour, we went to the Refectory Church of St. Sergius. We actually visited Sergiev Posad before we went inside St. Basil's Cathedral so it was in our trip to the refectory that we got to take photos inside a Russian Orthodox Church for the first time. It was beautiful!

Inside the church was one of the most striking iconostases I got to see in Russia.

As this was already the official end of our tour, I asked our Three Whales guide Oleg for an extra 10 minutes so I could see and take photos of a few other sites in the monastery. One place I wanted to see was the Chapel over the well. The water from this spring can supposedly heal the sick and as such, many people were collecting water from this well.

Since the toy museum at the monastery was closed, Oleg drove us to a nearby exhibition of Matryoshka dolls after we left the monastery, although we had to pay an extra fee to enter as it was not covered in our tour. Visitors have to pay an extra fee to take photos of the displays and in this case, we chose not to take this option. The most impressive set had 47 dolls if I recall correctly. Wow!

There are plenty of souvenir shops outside the monastery and my mom ended up buying an apron in one of them. The souvenirs here are significantly cheaper than in Moscow. In fact, my mom saw some keychains that cost around 10 or 20 rubles only but since our tour was only for abour 5 hours including travel, we didn't really have enough time to look at and purchase souvenirs.

The Sergiev Posad tour offered by Three Whales provides an option to extend your stay (it costs an additional US$40 per extra hour) in case you want to spend more time here taking photos, going into the churches by yourself, and even purchasing souvenirs.

Next post: Vladimir and Suzdal.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Moscow Metro

The Moscow Metro is arguably the best in the world. Not only because the trains come in practically every minute (I don't recall having to wait for more than a minute, which I think is incredible) but also because each station is built like an art gallery.

The impressive Kievskaya station

I first realized that the Moscow Metro is a must-see attraction after I saw a few Moscow itineraries from different travel agents that included a trip here. I went to tripadvisor to read a bit more about it and I saw that it was rated #7 among attractions in Moscow. After seeing a few photos online, I knew I had to include this in our itinerary.

Beautiful wall art at the Komsomolsakaya station

The question though was which stations were the best ones to visit. I checked out the tripadvisor travel forum to see what people had to say and I also noted down the suggested stations in my book. In the end, we managed to visit and take photos of all the stations in my list. (Note however that as I am reading up again about the Moscow Metro now, I realize there are a couple other stations I would have loved to see.)

Kievskaya (Киевская)
There are a couple of different halls at the Kievskaya station. One of them, on the Koltsevaya Line or Circle route, is decorated with mosaics...

Kievskaya hall on the Koltsevaya Line

...while the other, on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya Line, has paintings. These wall mosaics and paintings display events in Ukrainian history and friendly relations between Russia and Ukraine.

Kievskaya hall on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya Line

Komsomolskaya (Комсомо́льская)
Russian military heroes such as Peter the Great are depicted on the ceilings of this station.


Mayakovskaya (Маяковская)
Winner of the 1938 Grand Prix in New York, this station is very sleek and stunning.


The brightly lit sky-themed ceiling mosaics add an extra dimension to the brilliance of this must-see station.

Sky-themed ceiling mosaic at Mayakovskaya

Ploshchad Revolutsii (Пло́щадь Револю́ции)
Here you can find life-sized bronze statues of different occupations of Russian men and women.

Pl. Revolutsii

Park Kultury ( Парк культу́ры)
Appropriately, you can find circular bas-reliefs that illustrate different cultural, sporting, and other leisure activities.

Park Kultury

Novoslobodskaya (Новослободская)
This station was quite unique among the ones we saw since it is decorated with exquisite stained-glass panels.

Stained glass panel at Novoslobodskaya

Krasnopresnenskaya (Краснопресненская)
This station is decorated with bas-reliefs that commemorate the 1905 revolution when a strikers' march to petition the tsar in the Winter Palace was fired upon by troops.


Pushkinskaya (Пушкинская)
Alexander Pushkin is considered to be the Russian Shakespeare. We took a quick stop at the station just to see (and take photos) of the artwork that commemorate one of Russia's most important authors and poets.


Partizanskaya (Партизанская)
Floral bas-reliefs strangely adorned with AK-47 machine guns are featured at the top of the pillars in this station. At the top of the escalator is a bronze military-themed sculpture.


Teatralnaya (Театральная)
The station you get out of when visiting Bolshoi Theatre, a beautiful chandelier and a wall design that seems to commemorate World War II greet you at the top of the elevator.


Smolenskaya (Смоленская)
This metro served as the starting point of our Moscow trips since it was the closest one to our hotel. I took photos of this station for sentimental purposes but while it has a relatively simple design, it does have a massive military-themed sculpture at the far end.


Vdnkh (ВДНХ)
We got off this station when we visited the Cosmonautic Memorial Museum on the 2nd of May and it seems that most of Moscow decided to head to that area as well (this is also the stop for the All-Russia Exhibition Centre, which is where I think most of these people went to). It took a while to get out of this station due to the number of people!

The jam-packed Vdnkh station

My favorite stations among the ones I saw are Mayakovskaya, Kievskaya, Komsomolskaya and Novoslobodskaya. Pretty much every station along the Koltsevaya Line (brown line or circle route) is beautiful as this line, which connects the different cross-city routes, was built during the height of Stalinist Architecture to manage the growing number of metro passengers in Moscow.

beautiful wall mosaic at Novoslobodskaya station

A one-way trip on the metro costs 30 rubles only and it's a fixed rate for any destination, no matter how many stations away it is. As such, some say that this is the most inexpensive art gallery in Moscow. I tend to agree. Next post: a day trip to Sergiev Posad.