Locked Doors, Gleaming Cathedrals, And Impossibly Sweet Wine
“‘Russians don’t feel safe without at least three locked doors between them and the street,’ explained my guide Anna as she unlocked the brown steel door to the apartment building on the very central but pleasantly quiet Millionarskaya Ulitsa (‘Millionaire’s Street’) in the middle of St. Petersburg only five minutes walk from the Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace.”
Correspondent Paul Lewis, writing from Russia, continues:
“Sure enough, across the entrance hall was a second, identical brown steel door, then a wooden one, until we were finally in the small, well-equipped apartment Anna had found for the first leg of my trip to St. Petersburg and Moscow.
“Borrowing other people’s apartments is the smart way to visit Russia these days. The country is not cheap, with day-to-day prices already at roughly west European levels, though the ruble’s recent fall has helped dollar holders. But hotels are particularly expensive, as few were built under Communism and those put up more recently tend to be top-of-the-line and priced accordingly.
“To get a sense of Russia, you need to visit St. Petersburg and Moscow. St. Petersburg because it was Peter the Great’s ‘window on the west,’ a spectacularly beautiful baroque city he built on the Baltic as a symbol of his desire to westernize Russia and escape from everything the Kremlin stood for.
“Moscow because it is home to the Kremlin, symbol of that dark, mysterious, medieval Russia Peter was fleeing. The two cities encapsulate Russia’s story.
“An Internet trawl throws up firms offering private apartments for short-term lets in both cities. There’s one ran by a young American, Timothy King, and Anna, his Russian English-teacher wife. They arranged everything in advance, including tickets to museums and sites, travel within Russia, and guides. And, as you want to travel to Russia in summer, now is the time to book for 2009.
“St. Petersburg is such a tourist Mecca that visitors can tour its sites on their own. But tourism is highly regulated still in modern Russia, which means a Russian guide armed with pre-purchased tickets can save you a lot of hassle and delay.
“For instance, some sites are reserved for foreign tourists at certain hours of the day and for Russians at others. Getting hydrofoil tickets to the Peterhof–Peter’s opulent seaside hideaway a half-hour boat-ride away from St. Petersburg–involves a lot of waiting if you haven’t bought them in advance.
“In the Hermitage Museum, visitors can only see its gold and silver treasures in pre-arranged groups with special guides who don’t speak English, so your own translator is useful. And getting out to the Great Catherine Palace, the unbelievably magnificent green and white pile that Peter’s daughter erected at Tsarskoye Selo, involves trains and buses unless you have a private car.
“Of course, having your own apartment means feeding yourself. Restaurants are plentiful in the center of St Petersburg but few and far between only a little farther out. They also cost much the same as in London or Paris, so cooking for yourself is an attractive option.
“But in the city center what pass for supermarkets must be searched be for with care because, under Communism, few shops had display windows. They could offer only what was available. Today’s food shops are better stocked but still usually hidden away in the basements of large buildings, with few external signs. The word for a grocery is Magazin; an up-market fast-food place is a Gastrodom; a pastry shop a Konditer. You will have to get someone to write those words out for you in Cyrillic capitals.
“A word about wine. All these little basement superettes sell alcohol. But bad relations with independent Georgia mean little wine from the warm Black Sea coast makes it into Russia. Meanwhile European imports are expensive and Russia’s own wine often impossibly sweet.
“If you arrive in St. Petersburg, make the journey on to Moscow by train to see something of the countryside. And vice versa. Around cities, there is nothing but rusting factories. Farther out are lakes, expanses of empty grassland, and pine forests but remarkably little cultivated land.
“Make the five-hour trip in what the Russians call Business Class, which offers comfortably first-class airline seats and a hot meal served where you sit. Don’t be scared by the posse of armed police who meet this train at Moscow. They are looking for illegal immigrants sneaking in from Kazakhstan and other former Soviet ‘stans,’ who, typically, don’t travel Business Class.
“Our borrowed Moscow flat was very different from the one on Millionaire’s Street–a small functional place on the 13th floor of a hideous Soviet-era tower on Ulitsa Novaya Arbat, itself one of the capital’s most hideous concrete thoroughfares. Again, a bevy of keys is necessary for entering or leaving. But we got splendid views across a city punctuated by immense, ornate, Soviet-style skyscrapers. We had a problem on arrival, as there was no soap or toilet paper, so we had to rush out and shop.
“Luckily there was no problem getting food here because supermarkets abound on Novaya Arbat. There is even a Western-style full-scale supermarket. Even better, this featureless street is right next to its much more interesting little sister, the pedestrianized Ulitsa Arbatskaya, one of Moscow’s favorite tourist haunts, an attractive street of restaurants, cafes, old houses (some of which had famous people living in them), and antique shops.
“Again a guide is useful to navigate Moscow’s excellent subway system, which takes you to most major sites, or to negotiate entry tickets, needed for almost everything.
Lenin’s yellowing, embalmed body in its Red Square mausoleum is a site we opted to miss. But St. Basil’s Cathedral, with its steep winding stairways and gloomy, labyrinthine chambers, represents the mysterious, old, creepy Russia that Peter sought to flee.
“By contrast, the Kremlin’s public chambers are not so different from West European palaces, large elegant rooms where silver dinner services and all the other accoutrements of court life are displayed. You cannot tour the Lubiyanka Prison, which is now being turned into a toy store.
“The gleaming, larger-than-life Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer is a reminder of religion’s importance in Russian life despite 90 years of virtual abolition. Stalin blew up the original in 1931 to make room for a planned thousand-foot-high Palace of the Soviets to be topped by a giant state of Lenin. But it never got built, and instead a public swimming pool filled the site. Then the cathedral was rebuilt in the 1980s by public demand and largely by public subscription.
“A car and driver are helpful to reach sites just outside Moscow and notably the Novodevichy Convent, one of a series of fortified religious institutions defending the capital’s southern edge. Peter kept his half-sister Sofia locked up here after grabbing the throne from her in 1689. Later its nuns stopped Napoleon blowing the place up by spitting on his fuses.
“The convent’s cemetery is Moscow’s equivalent of the Pantheon in Paris–an overcrowded last resting place for Russia’s artistic and intellectual heroes and inevitably a few pushy politicians. Here lie Chekhov, Gogol, Mayakovsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich but also Khrushchev, Yeltsin, and Raisa Gorbachev.”