Historical monuments, art galleries, eating out options and shopping... Russia offers something for every tourist. Ranjini Manian
K arasho is the most useful word in Russian. It means, variously, “okay”, “good”,”understand?”, “understood” and together with Spasiba, means Thank You; these twin words always get you a smile. Russia — the world's second most powerful country, a friend of India, a beautiful nation occupying a sixth of the world. , A week spent between Moscow and St. Petersburg spans a total of 12 centuries (Moscow is nine centuries old, St. Petersburg is three) and leaves you lost in wonder.
St. Petersburg is the biggest city when you look at those with a population of over one million It was teeming, in mid June this year, as it celebrated the White Nights, World Economic Forum and the annual Graduation ceremony of young Russians. The phenomenon of the White Nights happens during a week in June, when the sun shines bright for 21 hours of the day, and monuments come alive with floodlights for the remaining three. The World Economic Forum of course had many reports of improving our common lot and ended in a lively debate between President Medvedev of Russia and President Sarkozy of France. The place was teeming with security and VIPs. As for the Graduation ceremony, it happens on June 19 annually, when high school and college grads flood the streets in their tens of thousands, celebrating with a live music show and street carnival.
St. Petersburg or Leningrad?
The drive from Puklova airport to St. Petersburg tells you it's a globalised world, as you pass plants of Coca Cola, Wrigley's and Toyota. The Moscova Prospect (prospect means avenue in Russian) stretches from the airport down through the city for 12 kilometres.
Many things seem to stretch 12 kilometres here, the Hermitage or the winter home of the Czars on the banks of the Neva, a museum par excellence also spans 12 kilometres, imagine a home that big occupied by a dozen people and perhaps 200 servants! Each room fills you with amazement at the opulent vases, the malachite and lapis lazuli pillars, the ceilings with bas relief and the artefacts of splendour. The gold and diamond room are special and so are the two Leonardo da Vincis of the Madonna and Child. Donated by collectors to the national treasury, Renoir, Cezannes and Degas vie with Van Gogh, Matisse and even the current temporary display of the travelling Picasso show, including the exhibit of this Cubist artist's rare goat sculpture titled “La Chevre”, leaving you impressed
Like our Indian cities, St. Petersburg once changed its name to Petrograd and then to Leningrad, and unlike our cities changed its name back to the original, so there is hope for us yet! The most stunning experiences for a visitor are the wondrous cathedrals and churches. Active churches in Russia move you as deeply devout followers revere the holy trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, marked by Cyrillic alphabets resembling an inverted “3”, an “O” and an “h” and the Mother of God. They cover their head with scarves, inspiring us to do the same, as they chant, sing, pray and genuflect, almost identical to the way we do our namaskar in India on bended knees, forehead touching the ground.
Museum churches are no longer active, but showcase mosaics and paintings that leave you in another kind of charmed awe, two such are the Church of the Spilled Blood and St. Isaac's Cathedral. The former has mosaic icons of Jesus and Biblical stories embellished with 22 carat gold halos stretching from the ground, on walls and even part of the ceiling, an incredible work by artists who didn't have any power tools.
Saint Isaac's Cathedral, is the tallest church in Russia with doorways that take your breath away as you meander through beautifully painted corridors in muted colours, reaching the inner sanctum where a choir performs live music.
Moscow's Red Square with the awe inspiring Kremlin is best enjoyed by a walking tour, pausing now to see, here a Lenin dressed alike, there a military Bolshevik for Kodak moments. Python, monkey, iguana, and vulture — add these to get your photo taken for 300 roubles a piece. Walk through to Saint Basil's Cathedral with its amazingly different spires, and the overall ochre, earth red, green and white facades offer a magical play of colours.
Quiet inspiration is loudly interrupted by cannon balls that fly in military honour, the changing of the guards is a not to be missed hourly event outside the Kremlin and Bosco's cafe overlooking the Red Square offers great coffee and a terrific view. Moscow is the financial and political hub of the former Soviet Union, enough to get a buzz with a three- day visit. The streets with cafes, metros that are plush as nowhere else in the world, fast cars and sweater weather leave quite an impression.
Buy, try, see, eat
Amber stones are a must buy in hues of honey to pale yellow as they are mined in Russia and are at affordable prices. Bargaining is the norm and guides get a commission when they escort you, so live and let live. Their matrushka dolls are ubiquitous but the newer versions of the Obama family fitted one inside the other are current fun souvenirs.
Georgian food is a must try. They use coriander, chilly and spicy sauces in their cooking, familiar and appetising to the Indian palate with a naan like bread called Lavash, which turns out to be comfort food for travelling Indians! Russian breakfast porridge is a delicious version of Indian rava kanji, all restaurants offer vegetarian options and meat is served with spices that suit the Indian palate.
The Bolshoi ballet is a must see, we picked the Sleeping Beauty but Swan Lake or Romeo and Juliet would do just as well. Renting a pair of binoculars from coat check-in is well worth the close up view of the unbelievable floating movements of the artistes.
Some of the richest live in Moscow, they even have a “millionaire's street”, their poor exist but seem hidden from tourists in these two cities. Beware of gypsies, one even came and plucked my bindi off my forehead! It didn't stop me from returning to India from Russia with love. Moscow's Domodevo airport and hour long immigration queues made us realise India is leaps ahead in its quality of airports and staffing efficiency - Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad or Bengaluru win hands down. That's the second time we thought of Mr. Praful Patel, our guide Olga had told us he was the other Indian she had shown around recently.
(Thanks to Mr. James Bond for the title)