Saturday, 12 June 2010

Last Days in Russia

We had a morning free in Moscow before our train left for St. Petersburg at 4.30pm, so decided to try our skills on the Moscow Metro and travel to Gorky Park (an amusement park which is mentioned in Martin Cruz Smith’s great thriller novel “Gorky Park”). We got instructions from the hotel concierge for directions to the nearest Metro station about 10 minutes’ walk, and then descended down the longest escalator ever to the trains. The lines were colour-coded, but should we board a left-bound or right-bound train? Our knowledge of Russian Cyrillic is non-existent, but a local woman kindly pointed out the right train for us. About 20 minutes and five stations on, we alighted and on reaching ground level, found that Gorky Park was about another 20 minute walk. It is quite a large park with gardens, shady trees and lots of amusements for both children and adults. Instead of pony rides, there were reindeer rides! Being early in the week, it wasn’t crowded and we enjoyed walking around and then sitting and ‘people-watching’ before an uneventful return journey to our hotel.

Our way to St. Petersburg was by a very fast train taking only 4¼ hours to travel 712 kilometres. We reached speeds of over 200kms per hour. Our hotel here is the Ibis and considerably down-market in comparison to Moscow’s Renaissance 5 star that the Zarengold agents had booked us in for our last night of Trans-Siberian tour. Still, the small room and basic facilities has one advantage – free wireless internet connection! We’ve made the most of using it for email and Skype-ing family.

Our first day of sightseeing was a half-day city tour and as we were the only ones, we had our own driver and English-speaking guide. Chauffeured in a new Renault Megane Extreme (nice car!) through the heavy traffic, we were taken to all the major sites and, like Moscow, St Petersburg is a truly amazing city. Gorgeous architecture, brilliantly decorated and painted, parks with shady birch and larch trees and, at the moment, lilac trees in full and perfumed bloom. Eventually we came to the Peter and Paul Fortress built by Peter the Great, with its beautifully restored Cathedral housing the last resting places of most of the Tsars through the ages. It also has a small chapel where the remains of the last of the Romanovs (Tsar Nicholas II and family) finally rest after being exhumed at Yekaterinburg. We had a late lunch before returning to our hotel for a siesta.

Today – our last day in Russia and we couldn’t have had a more gorgeous day for visiting the Hermitage Museum. It is an absolutely astonishing place – architecture and interiors are jaw-dropping, and the collections of treasures also kept the jaw well-dropped! Every room we entered had me saying again and again “Oohhh, wowwww!” We had our English-speaking guide from yesterday and she was great at avoiding queues and guiding us to the best of the treasures on display. Even so, we only saw a minute part of the whole complex of buildings that make up the Hermitage. Art works included two Leonardo DaVinci paintings, and numerous old Masters – Renoir, Botticelli, Titian, Michaelangelo and Rembrandt (25!!) amongst thousands of others, also fabulous marble statues, tapestries, lacework and fabrics (some dating from the 14th century), crystal, mosaic floors and also incredible pin-point mosaic ‘paintings’, Etruscan pottery, Egyptian antiquities, etc. etc. When Catherine the Great went shopping, she didn’t just buy one artwork, she bought whole collections and then built another sumptuous building to house them all. We have never seen anything like it. We had a late lunch at the Hermitage cafĂ©, and reluctantly left to join a canal and river cruise through the city. It was a lovely day and we saw the beautiful buildings at their best and heard the stories about them as we cruised along. Before returning to our hotel we visited a gift/souvenir store and purchased our souvenirs of a wonderful trip to an intriguing and beautiful country.

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