From Russia with love

Date Posted: 27/05/2012

Jeannine Williamson explores a corner of the world's largest country and finds a vast kaleidoscope of experiences for groups.

Winston Churchill described Russia as: "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" and until relatively recently it remained shrouded in secrecy. Mainstream tourism took off after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and today visiting groups can easily embark on a range of tours in this dazzling and unforgettable country.  

Russia's two greatest cities, Moscow and St Petersburg, are 400 miles apart as the crow flies - a comparatively tiny distance in the 6.5 million square mile expanse of the biggest country in the world. Situated in the west, they are much closer to mainland Europe than people imagine and widely featured by UK tour operators. Many itineraries also include the highlights of the 'golden ring cities' north-east of Moscow that played a pivotal role in history and the formation of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Moscow

With more than 100 museums, 2,500 historic and architectural monuments, and a population totalling more than ten million; the Russian capital can seem overwhelming, but an expert guide will be able to give your group an unforgettable taste of the highlights. The most famous sights are Red Square and the Kremlin, seat of the Russian government, where your group can marvel at the world's largest bell, biggest cannon and five beautiful churches.

Coach tours of Moscow generally stop at Sparrow Hills, one of the highest points in the city. It's a wonderful place to take group photographs and buy nesting dolls from one of the many stands lining the viewpoint. Back in the city, museums of particular note include Tretyakov Gallery and Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts; the former boasting the largest collection of Russian art and the latter with a fabulous display of French, European and international masterpieces.

As well as being a quick way to get around, the Moscow metro system - built as a 'palace for the people' in 1932 - is also a dazzling tourist attraction where the stations are lined with ornate chandeliers, bronze statues and gold-framed murals. Last autumn the world-famous Bolshoi Theatre reopened after a six-year renovation costing half a billion pounds. Tour operators and agencies can organise group tickets to see a ballet or opera at prices similar to top seats in the West End. For a different view, take a cruise along the Moskva, the river that gave the city its name. Evening cruises are particularly atmospheric and ships glide past sights such as the Kremlin, the decorative 'seven sisters' or 'wedding cake' buildings, and Gorky Park, the famous amusement park of the Soviet era.

St Petersburg

In 1703 Peter the Great founded one of the most beautiful cities in northern Europe. Set on the Neva river, the elegant former Russian capital with its grand boulevards and 200 miles of waterways is totally different from Moscow, which is why it is well worth taking your group to both cities. It is renowned for its artistic heritage as great Russian writers from Dostoevsky to Nabokov made it their home.

Nevsky Prospect is the city's main promenade and shopping street, and is lined with numerous restaurants and shopping arcades. Here your group can enjoy the lively street culture of artists, flower sellers and entertainers, and at the eastern end is Nevsky Monastery where the cemetery is the final resting place of many famous Russians including composers Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.

In the old city centre lies the Admiralty, a fortified dockyard built in 1704 that now houses a naval college, and nearby your group can see St Isaac's Cathedral with its great golden domes. Dedicated in 1858, it is one of the largest cathedrals in the world. Also consider visiting the Russian Museum in St Michael's Palace. It contains a remarkable collection of Russian art - second only to Moscow's Tretyakov - and interesting displays of folk art, textiles and lacquer work.

Golden ring cities

The towns of the golden ring were the seats of power in medieval Russia and shaped the country's early history. Yaroslavl, on the banks of the mighty Volga river, is one of Russia's oldest cities and home to the first theatre built in 1750. Groups will spot the city's coat of arms - the bear - designed into colourful flower beds, and top historic sights include the red brick Church of the Epiphany with its five green domes and the beautiful Church of Elijah lined with frescoes.

Kostrama is one of the prettiest cities of the golden ring and famous for its artists. Today the old trade rows, or arcades, are filled with attractive small shops. An additional major attraction is Ipatyevsky Monastery, sited where the Kostroma river meets the Volga. Uglich is another wonderful golden ring city where the Transfiguration Cathedral is filled with magnificent icons. Renowned as a watch making centre, it is also an excellent spot for your group members to pick up souvenirs and gifts as there is a bustling market leading down to the river bank.

Rail and river

Rail journeys and river cruises are a wonderful way to watch Russia's vast and changing scenery go by. The train can be used as a quick way of getting from Moscow to St Petersburg, with the express taking under four hours, or overnight sleepers make the most of daytime sightseeing hours.

The legendary Trans-Siberian Railway - reportedly the world's longest railway - crosses Russia and continues into Mongolia and China. The best-known section is the 6,000 mile seven-day journey from Moscow to Vladivostok, and trains offering three classes of tickets and restaurant cars can be booked through the tourist board website. For the ultimate journey of a lifetime various operators, including Great Rail Journeys, offer itineraries on the luxurious privately owned Golden Eagle.

Ships take around six days to travel from Moscow to St Petersburg, usually with two or three days for city sightseeing added to each end of the cruise. Typical itineraries include sailing across vast lake Ladoga, Europe's largest lake, stopping at Kizhi island with its amazing 22 domed wooden church and visiting the golden ring cities of Yaroslavl and Uglich. Onboard lectures provide a fascinating insight into Russia and its culture, and fun activities often include Russian doll painting workshops and vodka tasting.

Top three sights

1. Red Square: Set against the backdrop of the instantly recognisable onion-domed St Basil's Cathedral, the symbol of Moscow, the huge square is also home to Russia's largest department store, GUM, a showpiece of retail architecture.

2. Peterhof: 20 miles outside St Petersburg lies the summer palace of the czars, commissioned in 1714 by Peter the Great to rival Versailles, with opulent gilded rooms and fountain-filled gardens.

3. The Hermitage: Widely recognised as one of the finest examples of Russian baroque architecture, St Petersburg's former winter palace now houses one of the world's greatest museums. With 1,057 rooms and three million exhibits, a guided tour is the best and least tiring way of seeing highlights that include works by Michelangelo, da Vinci and van Gogh.

Russia Essentials

Eat: Russia's size makes the cuisine much more diverse and imaginative than most people think. Sausage, ham, eggs, cheese, blinis - buckwheat pancakes - and even fish make a filling breakfast. Lunch and dinner often include cold hors d'oeuvres, the beetroot soup borscht, filled dumplings and a choice of meat, poultry and fish prepared in different ways. Rounded off by cake, Russian ice cream or pancakes with soured cream, honey or jam, there is no danger of going hungry.

Drink: With four billion litres consumed each year, vodka is undoubtedly Russia's national drink. Usually downed in one from shot glasses, flavoured vodkas such as cranberry, lemon with sugar, and even chilli add to the experience.

Try: Built on 45 islands linked by waterways and bridges, St Petersburg is known as the Venice of the north and a canal cruise is a fascinating way to see the city from a different perspective. Routes run past many of the main sights including the Church of the Spilled Blood and Hermitage Museum.

Buy: Matryoshka nesting dolls, lacquer boxes, colourful shawls, linens and army souvenirs.

Go: May to September is the best time to visit Russia, and July and August are the warmest months. Avoid the start of the snow in late October and thaw around late March and April when it can be very slushy.

Factfile

Flight time: 4hrs to Moscow.
Time difference: GMT +3hrs for Moscow and St Petersburg.
Currency: Rouble £1=RUB47.
Language: Russian.
Red tape: All visitors need a £115 tourist visa before travelling. For information and an online application form visit the tourist board website. Most tour operators will help arrange visas for groups.

facebook twitter make as homepage