I knew I was taking a chance with Moscow. After all, the current political situation in the region is less than stable and Putin is anything but predictable. Who knew if he would make a move that would draw military engagement from the rest of the world. But Russia had been on my wish list since my first trip around the world 9 years ago and the dramatic drop in airfares to the region were simply too good to pass up. Not to mention it had been years since my last trip around Europe and I was long overdue for a return.
So I decided to take a chance…engage in a bit of Russian Roulette, if you will indulge the metaphor.
My original plan for this summer (developed long before tensions swelled in the region) was Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus. But with an official travel warning for the Ukraine issued by the US State Department in March, I couldn’t in good conscious keep it on the itinerary. I never want to be one of those people who has to be airlifted out of a country my government explicitly warned me about visiting.
But for travel to Russia, it was a simple travel alert (very different from a warning) focused on the Ukranian border. Nothing for Moscow or St. Petersburg, where I planned to visit. So the trip was on…with just a slight modification in the itinerary.
The Russian Visa Process
After weeks of careful consideration, it was late April before I finally decided to pull the trigger on the Russia trip. With a departure planned for mid-May, that didn’t leave much time for the laborious Russian visa process. I should mention that I’ve started the Russian visa process twice before only to abandon it later out of frustration. This time I would have to stick it out.
The tricky thing about the Russian visa process is that you can’t just fill out an application and pay your money, you have to be sponsored. This sounds more difficult than it actually is, it’s mostly just an excuse for the visa to cost more. You can be sponsored by your Russian travel agency, your hotel or just pay a fee to a visa service. It’s a simpler process if you’re traveling as part of a group because the travel agency will make the arrangements but if you’re visiting independently, you’ll need a little help.
I found a Russian visa service in Atlanta (Gotorussia.com) and followed their website’s explicit instructions to complete the online application. Miraculously, I only had to call their office with questions twice during the process. Though I did almost faint when I got to the section that asked me to list every country I’d visited in the last 10 years…with exact dates. Seriously? Is there an option to check “All of Them” or maybe just list the ones I haven’t visited yet? (This was the first call to the office where I was told, yes, list them all.) Ugh.
Pause to pour glass of wine. Back to computer…
Luckily, after carefully flipping through my passport to find the exact dates I entered and exited 30 or so countries, I ran out of space on the application. A quick 2nd call to the office confirmed that, yes, it was ok to stop once the space was full. Hooray!
Pause to pour second glass of celebratory wine.
Since my good friend and regular travel buddy Shannon would be joining me in Russia, we were both completing our applications at the same time and I took them down to GoToRussia’s office the next morning. We had hoped we were getting them submitted in time to pay for regular processing in 11 business days but due to two Russian holidays in early May the agency strongly recommended paying for the express service. We didn’t want to spend the extra money but we also didn’t want to be awake at night wondering if we’d have our passports back in time to fly so we gave in. Five business days and a little over $400 later (by far the most I’ve ever paid for a visa) we had our visas in hand and were ready to fly.
The moral of this story? Don’t be daunted by the Russian visa process, but don’t be cheap about it either.
Mastering the Moscow Metro
After a connection through JFK and a long but pleasant flight, Shannon and I landed in Moscow Russia a little after 10:00am on Saturday morning. Neither of us slept much on the flight but with just 24 hours to explore Moscow, there was no time to waste. Sleep would have to wait for now.
The first order of business was navigating to our hotel, the Mercure Paveletskaya, via the airport train and the metro. I live for travel challenges like this. Diligent research warned not to expect English anywhere on the subway system so I’d arrived armed with a Cyrillic alphabet cheat sheet and a metro map with station names in both English and Russian.
Navigating the Moscow metro system actually turned out to be kind of fun and the ornate Soviet-era stations were more beautiful than any I’ve ever seen. Like a spy game where you have to break the code to win. It was all very James Bond meets Amazing Race.
Luckily, like the first time I visited Greece many years ago, mandatory memorization of the Greek alphabet in my college sorority days really paid off. Several of the letters are the same and after learning a few key Cyrillic letters I was able to make out words with surprising accuracy. And conveniently, though the signs were definitely all Russian in the metro stations, once you actually boarded a train the map of that particular line was often in English as well.
Less than an hour after landing we walked off the metro just a few blocks from our hotel, it couldn’t have been easier!
Hitting the Streets of Moscow Russia
Despite our prowess at deciphering the Moscow metro system, Shannon and I wanted to see as much of the city as possible with our limited time so for the rest of the day we opted to walk everywhere.
After arriving to overcast weather, by the time we dropped our bags and regrouped the skies had begun to clear and a magnificent spring day was in full bloom. With no time for small talk, we headed straight for the Russian capital’s lively hub, Red Square…about a 20 minute walk from the hotel.
Halfway into our walk we rounded a corner and unexpectedly got our first glimpse of the multi-colored onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral and even from a distance it was a jaw-dropper. I’ve probably seen hundreds of images of this iconic symbol of Mother Russia over the years but photos definitely don’t do it justice.
Built in 1561 to celebrate the victory by Ivan the Terrible that secured Moscow’s supreme dominance in the region, it is the most recognizable building in the world’s largest nation.
I was absolutely mesmerized by the brilliant colors winding upwards into a cloudless blue sky. And behind those colorful walls, the interior was just as ornate. Instead of the typical cavernous chapels of western cathedrals, the interior of St. Basil’s is a labyrinth of nine small, intimate chapels ornately decorated with engravings and countless icons.
From our starting point at St. Basil’s, the massive open plaza of Red Square sprawled before us. To our left, the red-brick fortified hill of the Kremlin, the country’s political headquarters. To our right, the endless limestone, granite and marble facade of GUM, Moscow’s Soviet-era state department store turned luxury shopping arcade. Directly ahead, the red-brick walls of the Russian Historical Museum.
Notwithstanding its impressive tenants, Red Square itself is one of Moscow’s premier historical sites. It houses the mausoleum for the founder of the USSR, Vladimir Lenin, and in 1945, the square hosted a WWII victory parade. Today, it’s the setting for a variety of ceremonies and festivals and even an ice-skating rink in the winter months.
The sheer size and vast open space reminded me a lot of Beijing’s Tiannanmen Square, the imposing walls of the Kremlin reminiscent of those of the Forbidden City. Honestly, it was all a bit overwhelming and we were starving so we decided to grab lunch before tackling the rest.
I’d read about a small cafeteria-style restaurant with good, inexpensive Russian cuisine over near the Bolshoi Theatre and since we were excited to try a little Russian food, we headed that way. Not surprisingly, nothing on the menu was in English but at least we could see the menu items through the glass at the counter. We chose a few things to share, added on two beers and hoped for the best.
The mushroom bliny (a Russian crepe or pancake) was the tastiest dish we tried and unfortunately would turn out to be our best meal of the weekend. Luckily the beer and the sunny outdoor terrace added to our enjoyment of the lunch experience. After lunch we stopped by the Bolshoi Theatre, the center of Russian culture since the mid-19th century and then made the lengthy walk over to our next stop, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
A stunning example of new Russian Orthodox architecture, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was fully restored between 1994 and 2000 after being demolished in 1931. The current version is a close replica of the original 19th Century cathedral built in honor of the victory over Napoleon. The cathedral was surrounded with beautiful gardens in full springtime regalia and the gold onion domes gleamed in the bright sunlight. The chapel inside was packed with local worshipers and after taking a quick look around we left them to their silent prayer.
The Bridge of Love
As we walked out the back side of the cathedral and across the Moscow River, I noticed heart-shaped locks attached to the lattice ironwork on the bridge with names and dates inscribed on them. I knew from my research that it was a Russian wedding tradition for couples to attach a lock to a Moscow bridge on their wedding day and throw the key into the river. Apparently, this became such a problem on the bridges of Moscow that the government designated the Luzhkov Bridge as the “Bridge of Love” to satisfy the needs of superstitious newlyweds. From the pictures I’d seen, this wasn’t the bridge but like many of the city’s bridges it still held the lucky in love wishes of hundreds of newlywed couples.
By the time we reached the river it was nearly 8pm and we were suddenly starving. We decided to take a stroll down the river and see if we could find a good restaurant. We struck out on the restaurant but did manage to stumble across the actual Bridge of Love, lined with wrought iron “trees” for couples to attach their locks. Since it was a Saturday, we’d already seen a number of brides and grooms posing for photos in front of St. Basil’s and elsewhere around the city.
And it looked as if they’d been here today, too. Though we didn’t spot anyone actually securing their lock “leaf” to a tree on the bridge, the trash cans overflowed with empty champagne bottles and limos lined the street nearby. It was quite a festive scene. The Russians really love their champagne, I like that in a person.
Dusk in Red Square
Dusk is my favorite time for photography and I was just dying to capture Red Square and St. Basil’s during what photographers call the “magic hour” just after sunset. Unfortunately, a quick check of sunset times revealed that the sun didn’t set in Moscow until nearly 10:00pm so we’d need to rally our stamina to stay in the area that long.
The sun finally set around 9:45pm and as we waited for the orange glow to transition to a brilliant dusk blue, we killed some time in GUM in the incredible first level gourmet store.
From Russian champagne to vodka and caviar, this store had it all. It was a giant grocery store of Russian luxury cuisine. In the pastry shop, we found a freezer full of foil-wrapped cylinders on a stick resembling ice cream and decided to give them a shot. The mystery ice cream turned out to be your basic vanilla covered in a dark chocolate shell and was just as delicious as it sounds. It was the perfect reward after a full day of walking. And since we never actually found anything for dinner, it would have to do.
When the sky was just right at 10:30pm, we emerged into Red Square to photograph St. Basil’s Cathedral in all its brightly-lit nighttime glory. It was magnificent. Totally worth the wait.
After yet another St. Basil’s photography session, we began the walk back to the hotel. Since we hadn’t had a real meal all day, we made a stop for a late night snack nearby before finally calling it a night.
When we got back to the room at nearly 1:00am, Shannon’s FitBit told the story of our day…more than 30,000 steps, the equivalent of over 13 miles (that’s half-marathon distance for all you non-runners out there). And after a 10-hour flight the night before, we were feeling every step. We collapsed into our beds with a plan to wake early and see the interior of the Kremlin before our 1:30pm train to St. Petersburg.
Best laid plans….
Unfortunately, good intentions do not always mesh with jetlag. I awoke the next morning feeling exactly like I’d run a half-marathon on 3hrs sleep (i.e. not swell). Shannon was equally unambitious and we finally departed the hotel a little after 10:00am, this time on the metro to save time and energy.
Unfortunately, when we arrived at Red Square, the entire area was blocked off for some sort of ceremony and it appeared the Kremlin was closed (at least we couldn’t find an open entrance). We couldn’t even find a decent spot to grab breakfast and had to again settle for an ice cream on the walk back to the metro station. It’s perfectly acceptable to have ice cream for breakfast on vacation, right?
Sadly, we were out of time with so much more to see. Maybe someday I’ll get a chance to go back and get a look at all the things that I missed. But for now, I definitely feel like I made the most of my 26 hours in Moscow Russia.
Next stop, St. Petersburg!