From Russia, With Love

The name is Bond, James Bond’. Think Russia and the first connection that one makes is the iconic secret agent James Bond. Almost all his stories have a Russian connection – be they notorious villains (gorgeous women included) and heroes who either oppose Agent 007 or fight on his side.
But my decision to visit the Russian Federation had little to do with James Bond. While I was looking at the globe on my study table pondering over my next holiday destination, my eyes fell on this huge country that was part of the former USSR (United Soviet Socialist Republic) and a superpower during the Cold War. My interest was piqued, and I immediately started researching about the Russian Federation and the attractions that the country held. And the images just whetted my desire to visit the place.

Getting to Russia is fairly easy especially after you zero in on the destinations that you wish to see. We chose Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Getting a visa is also fairly simple once you submit a letter in Russian from the hotel to the embassy. Ever since the iron curtain was wrung down, the country has started welcoming tourists in a big way.

MOSCOW

Our trip began in Moscow and we spent two days visiting the Kremlin, Red Square and some other offbeat locations like the Moscow University and the Victory Park.

For anyone who grew on James Bond, Kremlin is pretty much irresistible. The walled fort, which is hundreds of years old depicts much of the country’s history. Enclosed within the Kremlin are various churches, palaces and museums, but the most significant of them is the Armoury. The Treasury has beautiful ornaments, clothes, carriages and other artefacts including the Faberge Eggs in different shapes, sizes and gems. The Diamond Fund, which has Russia’s biggest collection of valuable gems, precious stones and ornaments, is located here.

The Kremlin also houses Lenin’s Tomb, where his body is still preserved. Even after the fall of the Communists, an air of reverence still hangs here and armed guards protect the tomb. Visitors too are expected to behave appropriately.

And just as the Changing of the Guards is a big attraction of Buckingham Palace, do not miss the chance of seeing a similar ceremony outside the Kremlin. The routine was very impressive and we watched it spellbound.

Adjoining the walls of the Kremlin is the Red Square. The moment you enter the square, you will be greeted by Russia’s most iconic structure, St Basil’s Cathedral. It’s a colourful architectural monument with minarets and domes in multiple colours. Take some time to check out the museum housed inside it or spend some time on the lawns and enjoy the cathedrals’ beauty.

An off-beat place that we happened to visit was the Moscow University. This is Russia’s oldest and largest university where students and scholars from all over the world come to study. It also claims to have the tallest educational building in the world that is surrounded by huge parts. Unfortunately, we did not get a chance to visit the top of the museum that has an observatory and offers a 360-degree view of the city. I am sure it must be breath-taking.

We also spent time at the Victory Park, which has been built in the memory of those who lost their lives in World War 2. It’s a huge park that houses a museum and a cathedral as well as several water fountains. This was a peaceful place and we were able to enjoy a wonderful picnic here.

When in Moscow, you must not miss the various artistically done up Metro Stations. The Metro network is excellent and the best I have seen so far, beating even Paris and Hong Kong. English is still not widely spoken here so better use a map which has both Russian and English words.

The Russian capital is the home to the largest number of billionaires and hence there is no dearth of eateries or cuisines. But as we were vegetarians, getting across our dietary requirements was little difficult. However, with global food chains operating here, we managed to sail through.

SAINT PETERSBURG

From Moscow, we took a high-speed train to Saint Petersburg; a journey that was 4.5 hours long.

We reached Saint Petersburg at midnight and were greeted by brightly lit streets full of people having fun. The atmosphere here was more vibrant than Moscow and we almost immediately felt very welcome.

This is a beautiful city and we spent three days exploring this place, which featured prominently in Bond’s Golden Eye, the first film made after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

We started exploring the beautiful city on foot, beginning with a visit to Kazan Cathedral. This is a popular landmark as Our Lady Of Kazan is a revered deity in Russia. The cathedral’s interior features numerous columns and houses iconic sculptures and art pieces created by some of the most respected artists of that time.

We also spent an entire day in the Hermitage Museum and the surrounding royal grounds. This is a huge museum and is also known as the Winter Palace. Here you will find the world’s largest and finest collection of fine art, mosaic furniture, floors, marble fountains and some interesting items that were top-of-the-line technology in those days. You can enjoy the marvels of not only Russia but of other countries like India, China and France. The Palace décor is breathtakingly beautiful and anybody would wish to be a royalty.

Saint Petersburg has several beautiful gardens, but the most striking of them is the Summer Garden which houses the Summer Palace.  Another interesting cathedral is the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood. It’s the iconic structure of Russia similar to St Basil’s Cathedral with similar colourful domes. If you view it from far, it seems as if it is studded with precious stones and gems.

Saint Issac’s Cathedral is also worth a visit. You must go to the colonnade on the top from where the view is fantastic. You can visit this place either during the day or night. There are several museums dotting the city and a delight for anybody interested in history.

Another notable feature of Saint Petersburg is its numerous bridges built across the Neva River. During night-time, we could see them opening up for ships to pass through. This sight brought out the child in us as we waited excitedly for the next vessel to pass.

While we enjoyed our stay at both Moscow and Saint Petersburg, we felt that the latter was far more cosmopolitan and vibrant. That’s probably because it is more popular as a tourist destination. Here you can find lots of English speaking people and even signs and name boards in English. The city has several restaurants serving a wide variety of cuisine and it was very easy to find vegetarian food. The roadside cafes are an absolute delight and some of them serve sheesha/hooka as well.

Apart from beautiful ballerinas and Olympic champions, Russia is also popular for its vodka. Remember Bond likes it ‘shaken not stirred’. So you must try the local Russian vodka and if you are an Absinthe fan, then that as well, for these are sure to lift your spirits. But you can give the local Russian beer a miss, as it does not compare with the German varieties and we did not enjoy it at all.

At the end of our week-long visit, we were left longing for more. But given the stiff visa conditions, our stay could not be extended. However, the beauty and richness of country beckon us and we will be back for more. Perhaps go on a Siberian adventure and manage to get A View To Kill – James Bond Style!

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