VISITING RUSSIA ON A PURSE-STRING by Brian Northgrave (Article)
If you want to see the treasures in Moscow and St Petersburg without totally breaking the bank, maybe our experience will be useful to you. We are retirees who have just returned from five days in each city. We recommend the trip as challenging and unforgettable.
For a shorter time in those cities, perhaps a cruise or a tour is the way to go. Or, if money is not a constraint, my choice would be five star hotels, and travel around with cars and drivers.
To Begin With
A good place to start planning for your trip, always assuming that your visit includes St Petersburg, is with a phone call to Robin Young at the Ottawa office of “Friends of the Hermitage”.(Google their website). She is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the Hermitage and St Petersburg. Jim Currie recommended we join the Friends, and that was the single best piece of advice that we received for the trip. Take her advice and sign up, at $75 per couple, to be Friends of the Hermitage.
Traveling on your own in Russia has some high hoops to get over, beginning with getting a visa. The Russians may have jumped into a free market economy, but they have hung onto some profitable bureaucratic barriers.
To get a visa, we started with a travel agent in Moscow that a friend recommended (a French-speaking one; I can give you the email address). The travel agent faxes you two documents – one related to a government registration, the other including details of where and when you will be staying in Russia, and your travel arrangements. Since the faxes from the travel agent are all in Cyrillic, it’s hard to know exactly what they are. Before the travel agent can do his
work, you will have had to already book your accommodation in Russia. (We picked a hotel out of a travel book – perhaps Internet would have been better). Our agent got us our train tickets as well.
With the two documents from the travel agent, and $75 a head in money orders, you have a basis for applying to the Russian embassy in Ottawa for your visa. If everything is in order, you can hope that two or three weeks later you will have a visa.
As noted above, we looked for a hotel in our guide book (Le Routard), but in the end took the advice of our travel agent – at least for St Petersburg. If we had to do it again, we would work do our own bookings. Location is key, so Map Quest is useful to see if you are close to the sites, close to public transport or perhaps a short taxi ride to the sights. In St Petersburg I would try for a two or three star hotel within walking distance of the Hermitage. In Moscow, we used the subway to get around, so being close to a metro station was important.
The guide books correctly point out that, if you are arriving in Moscow by air, count two or three hours or more before you arrive at the hotel. Bring a book and relax as the officials unhurriedly go over travel documents as the lines inch forward.
We paid the travel agent for a car and driver to pick us up at the airport. Even with the driver it took us close to an hour to get into town, and even though it was expensive and he got lost for a while, I would do it again as a way of easing into Russian reality..
First class train travel in Russia was a not-very-expensive option that we recommend. We took the night train between Moscow and St Petersburg which was quite comfortable, as was the day train from St Petersburg to Helsinki.
As noted, we used the Moscow subway. It is a bit intimidating the first time, as you descend deep (the subways were to serve as bomb shelters, too) to the platforms. But the Moscovites always were helpful with directions when we pointed to our subway map. And the trains come about every two minutes. So we recommend the subway, as long as you don’t mind having to ask for help.
In St Petersburg we used taxis - it takes getting used to negotiating each fare. You point to the address you have had the hotel write down, and propose, say, two hundred roubles, to be countered by an offer of four hundred. Most times we had to shake our head and close the taxi door before the driver would agree to three hundred. Once agreed on the price, the drivers were courteous enough.
You travel agent will book cars and drivers for you, but they are expensive. We did take a car and driver for a day, for a tour of St Petersburg and the trip to Catherine’s summer palace a hour outside the city.
While we were relieved to have the travel agent’s driver meet us on arrival at Moscow airport, we over-did it by having a driver scheduled for taking us to the Moscow train station. It was useful having a driver meet us at the St Petersburg station and take us to the hotel, but we should have taken a taxi when we returned to the station to leave for Helsinki. Taxis were about a third of the price of the travel agent’s car and driver.
We were never able to figure out the address of our hotel in St Petersburg. It was a five room renovated apartment in a building with a steel-plate door with a combination on it that, if you pressed the right number would get the receptionist to let you in. We asked the receptionist to write down the hotel address – it worked for taxi drivers but made no sense to us.
We bought some rubles at the Royal Bank foreign exchange window in Ottawa. Once in Moscow and St Petersburg there were ATM’s to dispense rubles, so we didn’t need to bring much money with us.
The guide books are helpful – the most recent, for example, mention the Moo Moo chain in Moscow which are cheery, crowded and serve standard Russian fare. We had good luck with the lunches at the museums and galleries. For dinners, we would walk around the hotels, looking for places the residents of the area went to – and this worked better than looking up restaurants mentioned in the guide book.
While the hotels are expensive – two or three hundred dollars can get you something comfortable if you are lucky – the restaurants tend to be reasonable, if not memorable.
The subway took us to the galleries and the Kremlin. We soon got used to asking people for directions – they were always helpful – and after a couple of days we almost felt at home traveling by subway.
We took a guide to see the Armory at the Kremlin, and that helped. Guides were standing around out in front and were about $US 20. On subsequent visits to the Kremlin, we managed on our own. The Puskin and Tretiakoff galleries are not to be missed, are close to subway stations and are easy to get around.
As noted above, you should start by joining the Friends of the Hermitage. For the $75 per couple you receive a package of information, and the membership cards which give free admission to the Hermitage and, perhaps even more important, allow you to go straight in, ahead of the long lines of tour groups headed by fierce ladies holding up umbrellas. Since the Hermitage only opens at 10:30am, it is a major advantage to get an early start on the day.
We spent four days at the Hermitage and could have spent many more. It was only on the second day that I decided to try the audio guide. I was happy I did. The British and American who comment the paintings give some depth, some historical background that lasts two or three minutes. I had brought with me a cane with a fold-out seat, so I would sit in front of the painting (at that level I didn’t block anyone’s view) and take in the commentary while the ladies with their umbrellas whipped their charges past. During my four days, I saw most of the numbered paintings that way.
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