With us both being so busy at work, the first month of 2018 was the most January-esque January I’ve ever experienced. I was so pleased that Hannah and I had the foresight to predict this, and counteract it with a flight to a new country for both of us: Russia.
Our expectations for the trip were unfairly smeared by anti-Soviet propaganda beforehand, with rumours of towering apartment blocks everywhere; grey, Gulag gruel served served three times a day alongside an occasional salty potato and plenty of wet, flavourless cabbage. I struggled to find anyone who had experienced this or otherwise, apart from my Nan (who had avoided the gruel by dining on a cruise and raved about the architecture), so genuinely didn’t know what to expect. On the day we set off, a plane fatally downed over Moscow, which itself was recovering from the most snow it had seen in a century. Thankfully, ours didn’t and we’d packed our thermals.
Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t find any gruel in our first stop-off, St Petersburg. Potatoes, yes, cabbage, yes, but neither salty nor flavourless. On our first evening, after catching the final performance of a ‘Four Seasons’ ballet at the Mariinsky2, we ate at Sadko, situated just next to the theatre. Well-known for it’s chicken kievs and smooth vodka, it was a great start to correcting our unfair misconceptions about Russian food. Teplo was another that stood out, with a very Scandinavian, hygge, interior and menu (the beef stroganoff was perfect); and the soupy borschts at Yat, next to the Hermitage, made for a perfect lunchtime break.
But our favourite was Apteka. Hidden, literally, on the third floor of another restaurant and bar, we had to head past signs for wardrobes, duck through curtains and finally ring a bell found in the third cubicle of a toilet block before we found the entrance to the cosy Indian, which served amazing, bubbling cocktails late into the evening.
It wasn’t purely a trip to disprove the salty stereotype of Russian food. We also spent time exploring dozens of the churches and cathedrals that St Petersburg has to offer, museums and galleries galore. We had plenty of recommendations (based on TripAdvisor, friends of friends and of course, Nan’s cruise!). The colourful spires and mosaics of Cathedral of the Spilt Blood, the intimidating architecture of Our Lady of Kazan and the view from the top of St Isaacs were all scenes I will remember for a long time. Equally, Peter and Paul’s Cathedral, the main building within the fortress of the same name, was worth the walk, and led us nicely to the Kunstkamera. Inside this museum, and this will divide opinion, were hundreds of pickled babies, most with deformities, preserved and displayed in the name of science. In need of something lighter to settle our stomachs, we headed back across the river to the Faberge egg museum. Having watched the Peaky Blinders’ obsession with the eggs on BBC, it was interesting to view them in their glory. (Both Hannah and I agree that the ‘upside down house’ on the same street is worth skipping unless you’re under 10!)
As well as delicious cocktails from the welcoming bartenders at Big Liver Place, our Valentine’s treat to ourselves was a first-class cabin on the overnight train that linked St Petersburg to our second destination, Moscow. It was here that we finally found the salty potatoes we had been promised, but coupled with an uninterrupted, spacious sleep at the price we paid, it wasn’t to be sniffed at.
It was 6am when our train pulled in, still pitch black, and still freezing. Slipping and sliding all over the black-iced pavement, we arrived at our hotel to freshen up before setting off on a short walk to Red Square, arguably the main attraction in Moscow. Surrounded by the Kremlin walls, Lenin’s Mausoleum, St Basil’s Cathedral and GUM mall – as well as hosting the belated Russian Christmas market (it’s February?!) – we didn’t have to walk far in the snow between stop offs. The only thing on our hit list away from Red Square was the Gulag museum, a frostbiting 6km walk – stopping off at Lepim i Varim, voted the best dumpling cafe in Moscow, to warm up along the way.
We caught our flight back from Moscow, massively sidetracked by a connection in Turkey, and spent the layover preparing for the next school term (and events contract, for Han). Where for us next?
Tempted by Russia? I’d recommend going in the summer unless you’re prepared to get very, very cold; and then you can enjoy the never-setting sun in some parts. Before you go, you’ll need a travel invitation, (available from hotels-pro.com once you’ve got your hotels provisionally booked) a visa (ru.vfsglobal.co.uk didn’t give us any grief), and pay a visit to the Visa Application Centre in London. Leave a comment below if you’d like any more advice.
If you enjoyed reading this travelogue or found it helpful in any way, please share it around on Facebook/Twitter, subscribe on the sidebar for future updates, and read through the previous posts from past adventures- Iceland was our last ‘winter’ trip and we stuck to the Baltic tradition by going to Montenegro last summer.