My husband and I went to Russia for almost three weeks in February and, finally, here is my trip report! Thank you to everyone who helped me plan the trip!
Thursday, Feb. 1: Arrived at SVO at 5PM and followed signs for the Aeroexpress. Bought tickets (500r) and grabbed a bite, since we had a ½ hour wait. After a 35-minute ride, we reached Belorussia Station and followed the crowd heading to the metro. Initially, I couldn’t get the machine to work with my credit card, so we went to the window. No English was spoken, but we had no trouble being understood. We rode three quick stops to Teatralnaya and, upon exiting the station, were immediately dazzled by the holiday lights in front of the Bolshoi – a great welcome to Moscow! It was an easy 10-minute walk to the Budapest Hotel.
After checking in, we unpacked and bundled up, excited for our first glimpse of Red Square, which was about a 15-minute walk. The center was dominated by a brightly-lit skating rink, and GUM was covered with white lights, but it was easy to spy the iconic St. Basil’s at the end of the square and Lenin’s Mausoleum to the right. I took photos, but my fingers got cold fast, so we headed back towards the hotel, finding a little restaurant, Cafe Vanilla Sky, 3, Nikolskaya St., that was open late. Tired and hungry we weren’t going to be picky. We shared a Greek salad, borscht, Beef Stroganoff, and a couple of “grogs” – rum, honey, and cinnamon. Total: 1898r, about $32USD.
Friday, Feb. 3: We slept in and had a leisurely breakfast, planning to spend the day at the Pushkin Museum and then have an early night. The hotel’s buffet breakfast was extensive, including eggs, sausages, oatmeal, cereals, yogurt, breads, cold meats and cheeses, veggies, and hot and cold drinks.
The walk to the Pushkin, about 25 minutes away took us past the Duma, Red Square, the Kremlin, and the huge (and controversial) statue of Vladimir the Great. We entered the main building first, and had paid before we discovered it was not the Museum of 19th and 20th Century European and American Art, which is the next building over. No problem; we had intended to see both anyway. We picked up audio guides and spent 2-3 hours there. (Skip the plaster copies of famous sculptures; those are left over from when the museum was a teaching institution.) After retrieving our coats, we walked next door. Three works were of special importance to me – The Red Vineyard and The Prison Courtyard by Van Gogh, and Blue Dancers by Degas. The Red Vineyard is of particular interest to many because it’s the only painting Van Gogh sold during his lifetime. This part of the museum seemed less extensive, but the collection is great and deserves an hour or two.
Leaving the museum at twilight, we stopped for a quick look at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Back at the hotel, we opted for take-out about a block away. I can’t find the name of the place, but it’s a coffee shop with a lot of nutritious/non-fast-food choices at the corner of Neglinnaya and Zvonarskiy streets.
Saturday, Feb. 4: We were up at 7 to catch a 9:20AM train to Sergiev Posad. Took the metro, (laughing at ourselves trying to pronounce the station names) to Komsomolskay, and followed the crowd to the train station, and…there were several! A young woman saw us looking puzzled, offered to help, and walked us to the platform. I’m not entirely sure it was the correct platform because we ended up on the local train, rather than the express. Oh, well! It was interesting, but we were a bit worried we wouldn’t know when to get off. We asked someone to help us and, seemingly, he understood because when we were told to get off, we were indeed in the right town. We easily found the park and statue our pre-arranged guide, Sveta, had suggested as a meeting place, but…no Sveta. We waited a few minutes, and then she came from across the street. Turns out she had been there to meet the train we were supposed to take, but when we didn’t show up, she decided to warm up in a nearby shop. We walked together to get a quick view of the monastery complex (a beautiful sight in the snow!), then crossed the street to her inn where we enjoyed a homemade breakfast of blinis, sour cream, jam, and tea. We then walked back to the monastery and toured for an hour and a half. Note: don’t miss Boris Godunov’s tomb, on the left as you enter the main cathedral.
Afterwards, we drove six kilometers in Sveta’s car to the recently restored Gefsimanskiy Monastery. The rough caves underneath the church are fascinating. They were dug by the “black monks” who lived there in tiny, solitary cells, eating little, and dying in a short time due to ill health.
We drove back to Sveta’s inn for a delicious homemade supper of blinis, borscht, salmon, bread, veggies, dumplings, and vodka. We had a great time chatting with Sveta, so didn’t make the toy museum, which I later found out has some of the last Romanov children’s toys. Saying goodbye to Sveta, we made our way back to the station, and caught the next train to Moscow - a slow train, but we weren’t in a hurry, feeling quite jolly due to the vodka consumed. A young Russian guy struck up a conversation with us, and we chatted with him all the way back to Moscow. (For the rest of the trip, he kept in touch, offering suggestions and answering any questions we had.)
Sunday, Feb. 5: Red Square! We started out at Lenin's Mausoleum, expecting a long line, but were able to walk right in, with only a quick security check. Passing all the memorials, we entered the mausoleum where there were guards stationed every few feet. Besides the guards, we were the only people in the room with Lenin; his body was in a brightly lit glass enclosure. I walked through quickly, thinking that if I slowed down or stopped, they might not be happy, and I certainly wasn’t about to try to sneak a photo. I felt as if their eyes were glued to me!
St. Basil’s was next, and we were lucky to catch a service going on in the first small chapel. The interior was surprising - broken up into many small chapels with dark corridors between. I can’t say it was a wow, but it was atmospheric and there are good views from the windows.
Next up was a self-guided walking tour of Kitay Gorod, which worked out well once we finally found the starting point. Saw several beautiful churches, then the Chambers of the Romanov Boyars, which we liked a lot, as it gave an evocative look at the early Romanovs’ lifestyle. Then on to the English Court – to me, not a must-see, but interesting. The guard-ladies, who seem so stern at the beginning, often turn out to be sweet. I found that if you are sincerely interested, they warm up and are helpful and even enthusiastic about explaining the exhibits. I often found myself nodding to a long description in Russian, which, while not entirely illuminating, was much appreciated.
By then it was close to 3PM and we wanted to get to Ryabushinsky Mansion, also known as Gorky House. Walking from the southeastern corner of Red Square, it took us 45 minutes, including about 10 minutes of floundering once we were almost there, trying to find the exact location. This building is an Art Nouveau masterpiece. The stunning staircase is only the beginning; all the rooms, including Gorky’s study with his personal effects and the upstairs church, are beautiful and interesting. We spent a little over an hour there, till it closed at 5PM. One of the highlights for me was a collection of Japanese netsuke. My husband lagged behind a bit and had a great conversation with a very nice Russian gentleman who worked there.
Monday, Feb. 6: The Kremlin! I woke up wondering if maybe I should have reserved tickets for the Armoury. We looked it up online and were panicked to see that, apparently, tickets were not available. Uh-oh! I called the front desk and they checked, as well, but…no tickets! What to do? I didn’t want to save the Kremlin for our last day in Moscow since I heard it can close inexplicably, so we decided to go as planned and see what we could see. If we couldn’t get in to the Armoury, we’d make a reservation for our final day in Moscow. After breakfast, we walked to the Kremlin ticket office, arriving at 9:30AM, and immediately got tickets, including a 10-11 entry time for the Armoury. Go figure. Relieved and excited (THE KREMLIN!), we joined the crowd in line for the security check. It was a cold day, (0-10F), so we hustled through Cathedral Square (Wow!), and continued to the Armoury.
I love the free coat checks everywhere in Russia! I stopped at the restroom to shed my long underwear, then picked up audio guides and headed to the “Start of the Tour.” The Armoury is overwhelming - room after room of gold, silver, pearl, and gem-encrusted “gospels” (bibles), goblets, platters, armor, thrones crowns, and other extraordinary objects, including Faberge Imperial Eggs. During one trip back downstairs to the restroom and gift shops, I bought a guidebook. Along with the audio guide, this was very helpful, and also now serves as a souvenir booklet since photos aren’t allowed.
We took a break at 1PM for the Diamond Fund. The crowd there was minimal; sometimes I was the only one at an exhibit window! Heaps (literally) of diamonds, jewels, crowns, scepters, bricks and nuggets of precious metals - mind-boggling! The audio guide rental woman was so kind; we had joked with her on the way in and, when we returned the headsets, chatted with her again. She reached under the counter and gave us a hardback book on the Diamond Fund. We were touched. I gave her a Maine-themed keychain I had in my purse (a small gift kept on hand for such occasions).
After the Diamond Fund, we continued with the top floor, where there are carriages, clothing, and personal items of the Tsars and their families. I think, in total we spent at least 3-4 at the Armoury.
Cathedral Square…aside from the handouts we got at each church and the info in our guidebook, we were a little in the dark about what we were seeing. In hindsight, it might have been nice to have a guide, but I also appreciated being able to go at our own pace. We went into all the churches except the one where the Tsars are buried; sadly, it was closed, as was Ivan’s Bell Tower. We moved on to the Tsar’s Cannon and Bell, but, by that point, the sun was down and it was getting really cold, plus I think it was closing time. Reluctantly, we headed out.
Scrapping our original idea to visit the Historical Museum that evening, we went to dinner, detouring to check out the exact location of the metro station we needed to find for our early morning trip to Vladimir. Alexey, whom we had met on the train from Sergiev Posad to Moscow, had recommended we try Taras Bulba, the Ukranian chain restaurant, and had texted me names of dishes to order. The meal was cheap and tasty, and the restaurant had a cozy atmosphere.
I’ll continue with Vladimir/Suzdal in the next installment!