Sankt Petersburg is like a mature woman who knows her self worth and does not allow anything to influence her. She walks through all of Russian history’s troubles and still stays intact, there are no Lenin statues here, no red stars on top of the buildings (unlike in Moscow).
We were quite lucky as the city experienced great renovations for its 300th birthday in 2010. So most of the buildings look nice and some renovation works still continue. The Winter Palace, called the Hermitage, is a house of 3 million art pieces, but sunny weather encouraged us to stay outside. Instead we did a boat tour through the canals which remind one of Amsterdam. The dry and hot European weather reached Sankt Petersburg too and temperatures were close to 30 °C, unusually hot for the city at roughly the latitude of Helsinki, but we dare not complain as the city looked beautiful in the sun. From our boat tour we saw the locals sunbathing and even swimming at the shores of the river Neva.
Our hotel was located in an old tenement house resembling the house of Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, with big staircases and thick walls. Every time when walking down the stairs, you’d wonder which flower pot would fall on your head. In Sankt Petersburg we also had a chance to try the Georgian cuisine which is dominated by vegetables (especially beetroots), lamb, wine leaves, and pomegranate seeds.
On our last day we went to Peterhof, the Summer palace of Tsar Peter the Great, who must have been a fountain-enthusiast, as more than 100 fountains of many kinds are spread throughout the vast gardens. Especially interesting was the Water Way which literally created an arch of small water droplets - very refreshing in the hot weather. As our train to Moscow departed very late, we had the chance to visit the Sankt Isaac Cathedral colonnade at sunset, which provided fantastic panoramic views of the city and was the highlight of our stay in Sankt Petersburg.
Half an hour before midnight we boarded the famous Red Arrow train to Moscow. The Red Arrow was the first branded train of Russia, the first that aspired to be more than just a train. In its history, it has served many famous Russians like Lenin or Stalin in their need to move fast between Sankt Petersburg and Moscow. Nowadays, with its 8 hour travel time, it is far from the fastest connection between Russia’s two most important cities (the Sapsan train makes the same journey in 4), but it is nevertheless one of the nicest. We booked a first class compartment, so we had it all to ourselves. It was definitely the most luxurious compartment on our journey so far. Water, orange juice, bread and chocolate was provided for free, as well as slippers, towels and some toiletries. It was a big relief to take off our shoes and socks and put on the slippers, after a long day of walking around Sankt Petersburg. After ordering breakfast (which was included as well), we promptly prepared our beds, which were very comfortable, and went to sleep. Despite the luxurious interior however, the train rattled along the tracks like any other, which kept our sleep rather shallow. Still it seems a great way to travel since you do not loose any “productive” time, you go to sleep when you depart and you arrive just after finishing breakfast. At 7:55 AM, right on time, we arrived in Moscow.
While Sankt Petersburg is an elegant city and Russia’s window to the West, Moscow was and remains uncompromisingly Russian. It all starts with the huge Red Square, proud Kremlin and St. Basil Cathedral, and all other monumental buildings around, and ends with the Lenin Mausoleum and brightly lit red stars on top of each important building.
Our first two days were filled with sightseeing of the most important sights, including less touristy items like Arbat street where Bulat Okudzhava used to live and the Museum of Cosmonautics with a original-scale-model of a segment of the MIR space station and a 100m tall titanium obelisk topped off with a rocket. In the evening, exploring the city by night turned out to be a treat, with the Nikolailevska Street lit up with Christmas-like lights and the State Department Store GUM trying to imitate Harrods in London.
On our last day we woke up earlier to visit one of the strangest tourist attractions in the world, the Lenin Mausoleum, where the preserved body of the famous Soviet leader can be seen, notably against his own will and that of his entire family, who believed that the glorification of a single man contradicts the very core of the communistic idea. Stalin apparently didn’t care. Everybody who knows Marta will understand that the only reason she went to see Lenin was curiosity. Curiosity was definitely not the reason for other guests, including several Chinese visitors who came and bowed several times to give glory to their hero. After waiting in line for 1.5 hours, we finally saw the great leader, who looked like a sleeping man and his skin resembled plastic. We read that his body is treated with many chemicals every year to prevent the decay of the body. Maybe that is why his skin looked like that of a mannequin. Many still debate if his body is true or fake. Guidebooks even say that his brain was in the past analyzed by a group of scientists to find out the reasons for his greatness. The institute was closed after several years and rumors say findings were not spectacular enough to be published.