St Petersburg to Moscow

Wednesday 8 July

Heading down the passage of the Hermitage hotel we struck a Russian bride all frocked up. Down in the rather grand foyer a few pieces of brass spark up as the groom and about twenty people stand around. As we get to the ATM in the foyer the bride arrives down a sweeping staircase. The ceremony conducted in the foyer is over faster than I can get money from the machine – bubbles cracked, music playing and the gathering continues in the foyer.

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We had booked a ride to the Winter Palace in the hotel van. Just as well as we were ticked off a list as we boarded. The Hermitage museum was originally the Winter Palace of the Romanovs, the last Tsar family to rule Russia. They were in Ekaterinberg when the revolution took place. Subsequently they were rounded up and given the chop. The palace is overwhelming in every way. Some rooms are lined with gold, silver and marble from all over the world. Ceilings are spectacular and furniture outstanding. There are solid gold clocks, statues and ornaments. The museum also goes into a building that is attached to the palace. It has statues of big strong blokes holding up the entrance. Room after room is lined with different marble and filled with artefacts from various parts of the world. I am sure I haven’t done justice to this must visit place. It is by far the most impressive palace/museum I have seen.

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Leaving the palace we strolled across the river to the St Peter and Paul fortress. Built in the early 1700’s it houses a large, gold covered cathedral spire and dome of the Grand Ducal Crypt in the centre.  The inside of the cathedral is also gold lined in Baroque style. There are quite a few bodies lying around inside marble casks. Generations of royals are entombed here including the last Tsar and family who were relocated here in the 1980s. The fortress also contains the fort prison, with its large cells where some people stayed for over 30 years, the old mint and lots of other buildings.

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A stroll back across the river took us to the Church of the Spilt Blood with its many onion-shaped spires – unfortunately closed on Wednesdays but very impressive from the outside.

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A stroll back up past the Palace took us to the navy academy also complete with gold spire. Two statues one of Peter the Great and the other the Bronze horseman were surrounded by nice lawns and gardens.

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200 odd spiral steps, with stops for the unfit buggers above us, took us to the Colonnade of St Isaac’s Cathedral. The dome on this is coated with 300kgs of gold. The views over the city from here are really good. There are many gold spires and domes around the city visible from here – many not even marked on our map.

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A stroll through the streets alongside and across 3 canals took us back to the Hermitage Hotel.  On the roof top bar we were attended to by a great young waiter. From Near Irkutsk he is studying here before heading to Norway. I mention this guy because his enthusiasm and English were outstanding. The service right throughout the hotel is of a high standard. It is from the roof top we see a guy with a backpack on and a girl making their way across the roof tops of the adjacent building five stories up. Had they been on the Orient Express? Were we being followed? Or were the just out having fun?

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It was from the rooftop that I realised why this city of treasure and extravagance seemed to appear somewhat dull. It is flat as far is the eye can see and apart from the odd spire or dome all the buildings are pretty much the same height – although mostly different and many ornate they run in a straight line down the wide streets.

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Thursday 9 July

We had a lovely, lazy morning this morning, catching up on news, calling home and generally enjoying a bit of a lie in in the luxurious surroundings of the Hermitage Hotel. We had a late breakfast just before 10 and checked out of our room at 12. We had arranged a transfer to the train station for our trip to Moscow at 12:50pm so spent the remaining time sitting in the lobby, people watching and chatting.

The train station was a big bustling affair and once we figured out the sign system was pretty easy to negotiate. Our train was ready for boarding nearly straight away and our seats in the premium coach were very comfortable. Roger was particularly impressed when one of the attendants cleaned the outside of our window just before we departed.

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Overall the train here was better (newer, flasher) than those we have been on in other parts of Europe but the track quality definitely seems inferior and we felt much more motion, particularly early in the trip. We rattled along quite comfortably though at speeds varying between about 130km and 220km/hour, stopping occasionally (for a minute only) at small towns along the way. I got a bit of a kick out of the announcements which always started (in English anyway) “Dear passengers”.

At one stop, Roger delighted in the fact that construction workers are the same the world over, taking a quick photograph of a young man leaning on his shovel. In fact. Roger took general great delight in photographing many things out the window – we both agree that I will have a bit of deleting to do tonight when I edit as taking photographs from a moving vehicle is always pretty hit and miss.

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After arriving in Moscow we transferred to our hotel, The Metropol, a real Moscow icon, first established in the early 1900s. It is gorgeous with lots of stained glass and marble. We didn’t have much time to admire it as we had tickets to the Bolshoi at 7pm – we arrived at about 6:30pm. Luckily the Bolshoi is just across the road so we had time to change and wander over. The ballet was in the smaller of the two theatres but stunning nonetheless.

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Although I had originally been a little unsure about ballet, I was mesmerised. We saw a comic ballet and the quality of the dancers, their athleticism and perfection of timing was outstanding, as was the orchestra. I was quite surprised at half time and again at the end of the show how quickly it had gone.

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Afterwards we enjoyed a quiet drink in the hotel bar and soaked up some of the surroundings before retiring for the night.

Friday 10 July

The day began brilliantly with champagne and caviar for breakfast. The harpist stroked the strings sending soft mellow notes into the dining room at the famous Metropol Hotel. This place has got to have the biggest variety of breakfast I have ever seen – omelettes to caviar and everything in between.

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A short walk took us to the Kremlin – a big fort surrounded by a brick wall, originally built as a wooden fortress in the 12th century. First we visited the armoury museum with great displays from carriages to frocks. Only a small section on arms but large displays of silver and gold plates, goblets etc.

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Next was the Diamond Fund. This place has enough carats in it to feed the South Island rabbit population for years. One case of rough diamonds had thirty thousand carats in it alone. Another housed 12 large platinum nuggets, the largest weighing 7.8kg. There are dozens of gold nuggets the biggest weighing 36kg. The place goes on and on with crowns and jewels of all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately pics weren’t allowed.

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We strolled around the grounds looking in and at various churches domes coated with gold.

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There is the world’s largest bell – at over 200 tonnes it never rang as a chunk fell out when it was cast.

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There is also what was the world’s largest canon or Tsar’s canon – never fired – to fire its big balls would have taken so much powder it probably would have blown apart.

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Parts of the grounds are out of bounds as I found out when going to cross a road to take a pic of some old canons. A whistle blew as a policeman came running towards me waving his baton.

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Red Square was next. Apparently Lenin still lies here visible in a preservative that is changed every two years. The tomb was closed today. Down the end of the square is the St Basils Cathedral complete with onion domes. This place was totally different inside than we expected. A maze of passageways and small rooms containing icons and other religious paraphernalia. Mainly brick and not well finished it appeared quite rough.

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A bite to eat at the Beverly Hills Diner created a bit of amusement.

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We came across the old KGB headquarters – not sure what it is now. Apparently there used to be a KGB Museum but it closed for an unknown reason. We also found the no longer open Gulag Museum.

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We did find a Napoleon and WWII exhibition on at the patriotic Museum of 1812. The Napoleon one was really well done even including the sled he escaped Russia in after getting his arse kicked.

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Exploring the Metro (subway) turned up a few surprises. First built in the 1930s and added to in the 50s lots of the stations are like memorials – described as a palaces for the people. Statues, mosaics and other art works grace the main stations deep underground.

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We popped up from the metro about 4km from the city centre enjoying a stroll through a nice pedestrian mall part way back to our hotel. Moscow is a really interesting city with a great variety of buildings and culture. For interest: Most of the old building here appear to be plastered brick. To the northeast of the main stone building in Red Square there is a new building being built in the same style but using a stone look-alike cladding which you can see cracks appearing in already.

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