This question, and its individual parts, was posed to me multiple times in the months preceding my trip to Russia a few weeks ago. When I first made the plans, I picked this destination for my January break, in part, because my mental picture of Russia has always included snow swirling on railroad tracks, border guards in fur hats, vast empty parks with snowy trees, and overheated rooms reeking of boiled cabbage! And that’s exactly what we got!
As the trip grew closer, my friends’ and family’s concerns proliferated. I am a fiercely independent traveler; I like a few guided tours here and there to learn more, but I like to be free also – to arrange my own transportation and lodging, to roam the streets, and to find things to do that feel a little more local. At this particular time, less intrepid souls fussed with me about Mr. Putin’s recent aggression, economic desperation that might boost crime against tourists with cameras, jewelry, and dollars, and even international sanctions that could affect food supplies. Stay in your hotel for dinner, I was advised, and certainly don’t walk around after dark. (Given that “after dark” started at 4 pm, that one was a no-go right there!)
That was a long introduction to say that I succeeded in doing this trip my way at my time; Russia in January was magical, and I would not have changed a thing. Unlike most visitors to Russia, my sister and I arranged our visas ourselves, bought plane and train tickets online, booked directly with hotels, arranged a few tours with a guide we found on the internet, and made ourselves at home as much as possible, even when that meant choking down a really bad lunch one day.
Of course, we visited the main draws of St. Petersburg, our primary destination, and its environs. Our first day after arriving, we drove out of the city to Tsarskoye Selo, the imperial village in the town of Pushkin. This is the home of Catherine’s Palace, the Baroque summer residence of the Russian monarchs from Peter the Great to Nicholas II. The palace interior is fascinating in the (been-there, done-that) way of all palaces – over-the-top gilded opulence, rooms covered in jewels (in this case, amber), thrones, rich fabrics, and impossibly high ceilings.
For me, though, the highlight was the snowy park in which the lavish estate is set. The whole complex of architectural structures and gardens was nestled among frosted trees and misty lanes, with the buildings and their brightly-painted walls glowing softly like Color Splash effects in black-and-white photographs. It was a peaceful morning scene, and our walk through the frigid park is a favorite memory.
The Hermitage Museum and winter palace was, likewise, a required stop, and it did not disappoint in its majesty and mouth-dropping enormity. One could roam for days through the galleries and exhibits, but we limited our time to four hours or so. The contents are impressive (Rembrandts, Italian masters, an Elgin Marble loan, the peacock clock, etc.), but we concentrated on their backdrop – the floors, walls and ceilings of the building itself.
We made cursory stops at a number of other venerable St Petersburg sites – Peter and Paul Fortress (and the Romanov and other tsars’ tombs), the Church on Spilled Blood, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and Uprising Square, among others – and spent a very memorable evening at the Mariinsky Theater for a ballet performance of Swan Lake.
But we also enjoyed several days of just wandering the city between tourist stops. We never once felt threatened in any way, and the mood of the city during the New Year’s/Orthodox Christmas season was not exactly festive, but positive. We never saw any other English-speaking people in our time there (other than a few hotel employees), and the Russian people were patient with us as we pointed at food items and picked like kindergartners through the rubles in our hands to pay. We walked for hours with fur hoods cinched around our faces and handwarmers in our gloves, then burst into massively overheated buildings to eat or shop.
We did a vodka tasting and ate borscht, buckwheat groats, black bread, and blini. We stood in line like the Leningrad proletariat to buy greasy little pyshki (doughnuts) and sweet milky coffee at Zhelyabova 25, a Soviet-era shop where the quarters are cramped, the napkins are square sheets of non-absorbent greasepaper, and the prices are ridiculously low. We ate a $4 lunch (for two!) at a decidedly downscale luncheonette with a cafeteria-style set-up that allowed us to point at our choices (quite poor ones, it turned out), sit at communal tables with local families, and permanently impregnate our clothing with the smell of boiled cabbage and pickled vegetables.
We walked Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main drag for both tourists and citizens, and its offshoots until our toes froze in our boots, admiring the picturesque canals, rivers, and bridges. We lurched, stiff and frozen, along the Neva River embankments to see the carvings there, and we ventured out in a snowstorm one night to eat a delicious vegetarian dinner in a cozy below-grade restaurant with an incongruous photo booth outside.
We ended our time in Russia with a train ride to Estonia. I felt like Anna Karenina boarding the aging, utilitarian train from an icy platform in blowing snow, awkwardly leaping the 18-inch gap into the shabby car with suitcase in hand and settling into an incredibly uncomfortable seat for the 6 ½-hour ride to Tallinn. Along the way, we stopped at a number of isolated countryside stations; at one, I saw a lone babushka and her dog on a cold, dark street and shivered to think I was really, finally in the Russia of my literature-fueled dreams. The border crossings to leave Russia and enter Estonia were satisfyingly stereotypical, with gruff, fur-hatted officers taking our passports and halting our progress for a good hour, and a last-minute attempt to dump rubles in the bar car involved some hilarious miming to buy a couple of beers and some peanuts.
We found no reason to avoid going to Russia right now, even in the dead of winter, and do not understand why so few visitors make an independent foray here. The visa work is admittedly cumbersome and expensive, but once there, it is not difficult to enjoy all the country has to offer without being coddled and dragged around on group tours. Our best memories are not of the big sights, but of the small moments – pushing in line to buy a salmon and cucumber sandwich, rattling down the railroad tracks through the night, listening to Boy George and chuckling at the apt anachronism as we passed looming old Soviet government buildings in a cab, warming up on pumpkin soup and potato pancakes behind a curtained window, and on one glorious January day, seeing the sun come out and illuminate the canals and buildings of this magnificent city just for us.