Weird things about Russia

Like any other big, powerful nation, everybody has an opinion or some stereotypes about Russia. Many haven’t even been there, but from the media, movies, or Russian friends abroad, people still manage to imagine the place in a certain way. I expected a lot of things, but was also surprised by many.

1.) People don’t smile, barely ever, but when they did, it was you the warmest smile anyone could ever give. And if they laughed, you always laughed with them 🙂

2.) The average person doesn’t speak English, especially not in the transport sector, so you had to be lucky to have a hotel receptionist that could answer all of your questions or go to a fancy restaurant to get maybe one waitress who could take your order (or get onto google maps or google translate and work it out yourself which was an easy plan B with all the open wifi networks). However, when they did speak English, sometimes they wouldn’t stop talking, and you’d be checking in or putting in your food order for 45 minutes while he or she chatted your ear off.

I'm going deeper undergound

I’m going deeper undergound

3.) The metro stations and subway systems in Moscow and St. Petersburg where built to resemble theaters or palace halls more than public transport. There were crystal chandeliers and marble walls, paintings and statues, and all sorts of golden highlights. The metro is also super deep underground, which had something to do with Stalin wanting them to double as bomb shelters after WWII.

4.) The number of Churches, churches, and more churches… Orthodox and Christian, and the attached monasteries, was unbelievable. I swear we drove thru towns that had more churches than houses, and taller churches than any tree or building around. And some of them built in the middle ages, still standing, and preserved. Who has the time and money for all of them? But the artwork, inside and out, and all the golden domes, never got tiring, so thank God for them, whoever they are. But one weird thing that came up a few times was fluorescent or neon name signs added to the facade of some red-brick ancient church… which kind of looked like someone’s attempt to turn the churches into the red-light district.

5.) The European-ness of it all. Russia always seemed like an other-worldly place, an exotic country that is just as far away and strange as China or India, just in different ways. But Russia is surprisingly European, at least the places I visited, to the point that basically no cultural barriers were felt. They could maybe tell who wasn’t Russian by the way we dressed, but otherwise we had everything else in common.

6.) Russia loves Italy and Italian everything – especially art, fashion, wine, and food – cheeses especially. The best restaurants had Italian chefs or Italian inspired cuisine, and many of the palaces from former great rulers had the footprint of Italy’s earliest beginnings of the Renaissance.

7.) From the tiny countryside villages to the downtown core of Moscow, traveling around Russia was super safe. I had a small fear of the gangster or mafioso type, a hard-faced Russian undergrounder or some super-rich armed men in black, but we only saw a lot of nice black cars with drivers for some very pretty business people. People were also incredibly honest, and I wasn’t cheated once for a bus ride or cornershop purchase, even if I handed over 10x too much money accidentally.

8.) You can rent a horse outside the downtown bars in Moscow. I met a woman riding around at midnight by almost walking into her on the sidewalk outside Pinch restaurant, and she wanted to let me pay to ride her horse around downtown that night in between the nightlife taxi traffic and sidewalks full of party people. It didn’t seem like the best idea at the time, but now I regret not doing it.

the countryside homes

the countryside homes

9.) There are villages in the Golden ring whose economy seems to rely solely on teddy bears. From tiny to life-sized stuffed bears, you can buy them from each and every house on the side of the road from at least 2 different villages that I saw. And some of those village houses were barely standing, tilting on such an angle that you thought the ground must be on a hill you didn’t feel.

10.) Russia and rabbits… I don’t know what it is, but they like rabbits, a lot.


What to do in Russia

I’ve been trying to go to Russia for many years, but never made that many attempts. Once Icelandair had a sale to St. Petersburg for a little over €100 each way and I spontaneously bought a one way ticket there. Of course I found out soon after I needed to apply for a visa with an invitation letter and a return ticket, so that didn’t work out. I once had a 16 hour layover in Moscow on my way from Iceland to South Korea, but I didn’t manage to talk any of the immigration officers into letting me thru border control, even if just for a day. But I did manage to learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet, which was helpful when I finally made it.

Suzdal, one of the Golden Ring cities

Suzdal, one of the Golden Ring cities

There’s a food festival which started not so long ago called Foodiez of Moscow, and Thrainn the chef participated last year. So he’d been through the visa process and knew a lot of good chefs in Moscow and St. Petersburg. We each got an invitation letter from an Icelandic meat importer in St. Petersburg and then the visa was set. So now that I was finally going to visa, what did I want to do?

For starters, I wanted to go everywhere and see everything, but being the largest country in the world, that covers 11 time zones and isn’t exactly tourist loving (and speaks a language I don’t understand), I was a little restricted. And with only 2 weeks, I had to focus on the small area between Moscow and St. Petersburg, or, the ‘European’ part of Russia.

Moscow's Kremlin

Moscow’s Kremlin

Most guidebooks will tell you to do the same thing, and I don’t have much to add except the order which we did them. Moscow, you have to see the old fortress, called the Kremlin, which is full of exhibits, museums and orthodox churches, and the Red Square where you’ll find St. Basil’s Cathedral, a church that looks like its made of candycanes and came from Disneyland. The Golden Ring is a chain of cities northeast of Moscow, which we visited counter clockwise and skipped the more industrial cities. Vladimir was nice, Suzdal and Rostov were nicer, and Sergiev Posad wasn’t necessarily the nicest, but by far the busiest and most touristic.

Peterhof garden

Peterhof garden

The only other travelers we shared our kremlins, parks, museums and churches with were people from Russian speaking/former Soviet countries, and a thousand Chinese tourists. The latter always traveled together in large groups, usually touring by bus and magically managing not to mix up with the other dozen or so Chinese groups wandering the same sites.

The timing couldn’t have been better, since summer had just started but many trees were still filled with colourful spring blossoms; the sun was shining and the weather hit nearly 20°c every day. Even the big cities still had tons of parks and green spaces, and rivers and water fountains, so everything seemed lush and alive. Some gardens were to die for, and even charged entrance, but it was worth every ruble to see Catherine´s Palace garden and Peterhof Palace garden.

Catherine the Great's palace

Catherine the Great’s palace

Both those palaces are day trips from St. Petersburg, and can be taken with a boat, ferry, train or bus, and it was always fun to try a little of every transport form. After renting a car for the Golden Ring and backpacking the rest of the way, we had managed to ride the speed train, the local trains, long-haul buses, ferries, trams, local buses and the subway. Stops and stations usually had Roman letters, but it was definitely helpful to be able to read Cyrillic and try to phonetically sound out the words we saw to the words we heard. We stopped half way between Moscow and St. Petersburg, lengthening our trip from only 4 hours on the fast train to 7.5 hours of half fast-train and half local train or bus, but it was worth it to visit the medieval town whose kremlin was on the beach!

so many gold-domed churches...

so many gold-domed churches…

Some other stereotypes I had to fulfill were to drink vodka, trying as many types as humanly possible (you could probably stay in Russia for a year without trying the same vodka twice). I also wanted to see a Russian ballet and some Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff symphonies. We watched Chopiniana in St. Petersburg, and just the Mariinsky theatre itself was worth the visit (think of something like Teatro alla Scala in Milan). We saw a Prokofiev piano concert and the opera La Sonnambula in Moscow, at different theatres and only two of over a dozen available.

Luigi serving us on the chef's table at Pinch restaurant

Luigi serving us on the chef’s table at Pinch restaurant

If you also want to go to Russia for a foodiez trip, these are the must taste spots in Moscow, many of which turn into nightlife places on the weekends: Pinch, Twins, Uilliams, Ugolek and Severyane. If you want to try one of the top 50 restaurants in the world (#23 on the San Pellegrino list), try to get into White Rabbit, at the top of a city tower with great views of the city. In St. Petersburg, try Hamlet & Jacks or ‘Morojka for Pushkin’. With your meals, try some Russian wines, especially sparkling wine, which was much better than I expected. And for all of the above, its fun to try to sit on the ‘chefs table,’ where you are basically given settings and served on the kitchens service board.