***Bob and Jana Cash were Beyond Red Square’s first repeat clients to Russia, visiting the North Caucasus in Summer 2019 and returning in 2020 to explore Moscow & St. Petersburg (along with their son who is studying Russian in-country!). Read further for a play-by-play from Jana, to see if Russia has more to offer than just Red Square and the Kremlin.
Would this trip be a bust? Just weeks prior to departure, half of the journey fell through due to our flight to the country of Georgia being canceled with no viable alternative (due to political conflict); the much anticipated visit was now in the refund stage with thoughts of how we would fill our days while in Russia. Not to disappoint, Beyond Red Square immediately stepped up and put together an itinerary in a short amount of time to fill the extra days we would be there. The challenge: we had already been to Moscow in 2019 and that would be one of our destinations for the second year in a row.
Beginning the adventure in St. Petersburg, our private tour started with an excursion through the Hermitage Art Museum. Our English-speaking guide Elena was quite proficient and very personable as she maneuvered us through the second-largest art museum in the world. She took us through ornately-decorated halls where 18th-century nobility entertained and ruled in the days of Catherine the Great. History and culture came alive as mosaics, statues, and artifacts were explained to us in detail from the artist’s perspective of the times. Among the more notable art pieces from Catherine’s collections were wall paintings by Rembrandt and Da Vinci along with statues chiseled by Michelangelo. A quick light lunch took us into an afternoon on the grounds of Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace. Just as at the Hermitage, we were escorted right through the gates, bypassing any waiting lines found at the popular tourist site. More splendor captured our attention as the story of power, prestige, and personal glorification was told in rooms overlaid with gold, accented with the touch of an artist’s brush on the ceilings and walls. Elena’s meticulous telling of the story left little doubt about how the ruling empress became a “Great” during the expansion of the Russian empire.
The second day of our itinerary started with a walk across one of more than 340 bridges in St. Petersburg, the Bank Bridge with its golden-winged griffons. This would be a day of Cathedrals and Fortresses starting with the Kazan Cathedral located right on St. Petersburg’s main street, Nevsky Prospect. Working our way to the famous St. Isaac’s Cathedral, we encountered a candy-lover’s dream at Eliseyev Emporium Coffeshop, the old Singer Sewing Machine Company, the home of Beef Stroganoff, and the Anichkov Bridge encompassed by statues of the four stages of breaking a horse. Upon entering St. Isaac’s Cathedral, words really cannot capture the magnificence of the structure erected over a 40-year period. Most impressive are the 56 giant 114-ton red granite columns creating the exterior portico, all set in place by manual labor!
Next stop was across the river to the city garrison-turned-political prison, Peter and Paul Fortress, constructed by Peter the Great. Once again, the ornately-fashioned interior, housing 41 tombs including Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, was amazing. Our day concluded with a tour of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Even though the exterior center dome was under construction, the magnificent structure with its smaller colorful domes was brilliant against the late afternoon skies. The interior was stunning with nearly every inch of the walls covered in mosaic tiles creating a masterpiece of the Holy Scriptures in images. The museum also enshrines the spot where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded.
Before moving on, I will say that our supper selections got much better after our son arrived the third day and he helped us choose where to eat and what to order in the evenings! Fortunate to have our son who lives in Russia join us, we made another trip through the Hermitage Museum. One might think it to be an extravagant double-up, but honestly, with a different, much younger tour guide, we covered a variety of not yet seen areas of the museum and got a little different perspective of the place than with our older guide. One such highlight not seen in our first tour was the Grand Church of the Winter Palace. We also caught a glimpse of the thousands of carvings in the antique cameo collection as well as a real dead mummy in the Egyptian collection. Hopping a hydrofoil, we jetted across the Gulf of Finland to see the spring-fed pump-less fountains on the grounds of Peterhof Palace. Over 120 fountains dot the palace gardens, some shooting many feet into the skies.
Then it was on to Moscow. A first for me, we boarded a bullet train for the 4-hour trip. The terminal was a bit tricky due to the crowd of disembarking travelers, but our driver was right there to retrieve us and take us to our 4-star hotel, Park Inn Sadu. After settling in, we took to the metro and met up with friends for supper. With a variety of cuisine, everyone was satisfied, especially after topping the meal off with some fresh pastries and ice cream.
Our first full day in Moscow with yet another phenomenal English-speaking guide, Kira, began with a little sight-seeing of the city including a close-up of the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman stainless-steel Sculpture overlooking the Moscow Exhibition Center. The morning continued with a tour of the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics featuring a huge collection of artifacts, gear, and transports throughout the history of Russian space adventures. Being raised so close to the United States NASA program, it was interesting to compare the two, especially the competitive spirit. We then went over to the VDNKh Exhibition Center, a huge park filled with buildings reflecting different Soviet republics, a couple of interesting fountains, a space museum, and an amazing miniature diorama of Moscow proper complete with a light and music show. Then for a relaxing afternoon, we cruised down the Moskva River on a Radisson Royal Flotilla yacht. Lunch was served in the main cabinfollowed by a trip to the top deck for sight-seeing and lots of photo opportunities. In fact, that was probably the closest we came to places we visited on our first trip to Russia with Beyond Red Square. We truly went beyond the popular tourist attractions to encounter new and different experiences on this second trip.
Finally, to wrap up our Russian journey, we hit the highway traveling north to The Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius Monastery Complex in Sergiev Posad. Despite the heavy traffic through road construction and rain, we arrived with plenty of time to tour the spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox community. Our guide accompanied us but we were also joined by a monk as we wound our way through the Cathedrals, past the Bell Tower and fountain of holy water,, ending up at the souvenir shop of authentic nesting dolls which are made right there in the monastery community.
So ended our excursions for the 2nd straight year in Russia “beyond Red Square”. The travel agency bearing the same name did not disappoint in putting together a package that was highly engaging and entertaining. With plenty of photo opportunities and historical content, we enjoyed a vacation that in many respects was much different than our previous adventures into the North Caucasus Mountains. Thank you for helping us make amazing memories Beyond Red Square!