Talking Travel Grassroots Travel Stories Great Cities Suzanne Wright Russian Troika



My Russian Troika
by Suzanne Wright

“We’ll go to Paris many times but Russia only once I think,” said my friend Norman.

What he said felt very true as the two of us set off on a 10-day trip to three of Russia’s most popular cities: stunning St. Petersburg, historic Novgorod, and mercurial Moscow.

And it was a tri-city experience of Russian history, drama, passion, and culinary delights.

“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” — Winston Churchill


St. Petersburg

Perched on the River Neva, picturesque St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) seems to have more in common with Europe than the rest of Russia.

With the largest number of bridges of any city in the world (539) spanning its canals, St. Petersburg evokes Stockholm, Amsterdam, and Venice, but there the similarity ends. With access to the Baltic Sea, it has become a popular cruise ship destination and has been named one of the world’s top 10 destinations by UNESCO.

Founded by Peter the Great as a “window on Europe,” it is perhaps best known for its summer palaces that ring the city on small islands, and especially The State Hermitage Museum, one of the largest in the world with more than three million artifacts. The massive, mint-green Winter Palace, former home of the czars, is the leading repository of works by Rembrandt, Rubens, and the Impressionists.

Just a half-hour trip by hydrofoil across the Gulf of Finland, The Peterhof Palace was built as an imperial residence to celebrate Russia’s victory in The Northern War With Sweden. Its 2400 acres include 30 buildings, parks, pavilions, and 140 cascades and trick fountains, including the grand cascade of fountains with the famous statue of Samson tearing open the jaw of a lion. We attended a comic opera by the Conservatory of St. Petersburg in celebration of a one-year restoration of the grounds. The soft night air was perfumed with the scent of roses.

Nevsky Prospekt is an impressive boulevard, on the same grandiose scale as the Champs-Élysées Here you can watch an ongoing parade of flashily dressed, midriff-baring, highly coiffed, bejeweled, and heavily made-up women. (The “style” is referred to as “new Russian” even by their countrymen and women). The Boulevard is also home to Gostiny Dvor, the largest department store in the city, which in turn is adjacent to the Grand Hotel Europe, where we stayed.

The city’s oldest hotel (during the siege of Leningrad it was a hospital) and the only five-star hotel in Eastern Europe, it recently hosted G-8 attendees. Its neo-classical façade and the red carpet in the lobby give it a regal feel, yet the staff couldn’t be more down-to-earth; we felt like family during our stay. Our beautifully-appointed room had a magnificent view of the Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood, with its fanciful domes. On entering the room, we threw open the windows. It was August and night had still not fallen at nearly 11 p.m. The last fingers of a pink-tinted sunset provided a backdrop for fireworks that lit the sky. We mused that the reception was for us on our night of arrival; and we celebrated with our first (of many) tumblers of ice-cold vodka.

A lavish breakfast awaited us in the morning. The impressive array included dried cherries, raisins, and strawberries from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The egg-in-egg was softly scrambled and beautifully served in hollow shells topped with caviar. The fluffy blinis were served with a crème fraîche-like sour cream and caviar. WE also enjoyed Ukrainian-style braised pork with caramelized honey and spices, and strawberries Romanov.

Later in the day, another culinary treat was in store for us when we visited the in-house chocolatier and the hotel’s Caviar & Vodka Bar. Swiss-born Daniel Burkhard led us on a tasting journey through his collection of 57 high-quality vodkas, which included a strawberry-infused version made in-house and a Siberian vodka. We learned that the best vodkas have no smell and don’t burn your throat, they won’t cause a hangover, and they can be paired with any food, much like champagne. In addition to discovering two favorite vodkas, Imperia and Tsakraya Gold, we feasted on caviar: sevruga (brilliant orange salmon eggs); oscietra, and delicate beluga. All top-grade caviar, they were all presented in their tins on ice.

The Kuznechny Market down the street from Dostoyevsky's apartment museum, was a huge still life with vegetables and fruit. In side the tidy covered building vendors were selling honey dripping from beeswax frames, cheese, meats, fish, and flowers. We sampled the string-like smoked cheese and bought bags of salty, pickled cucumbers, and bright, shiny cherries. Leaving the market, we saw a procession of priests in gold-emblazoned burgundy robes; worshippers followed behind them. Most of the believers were solemn-faced babushkas, their hair wrapped in patterned cotton head scarves. Many leaned on canes, their contorted postures evidence of the hard lives they once knew only too well.


A three-and-a-half hour bus ride took us to Novgorod, one of the oldest cities in the country, and renowned for its 12th-century churches. Our excellent guide Natasha had an encyclopedic knowledge of Russian history and an impressive grasp of the subtleties of English. We spoke of everything from politics to pop culture.

As a gentle rain fell, we spent a day touring Byzantine-style onion-dome topped churches (designed, as we learned, so that snow wouldn't accumulate). We marvelled at the only remaining interior frescoes of Greek painter Theophanes at Our Savior of Transfiguration. At St. Sofia’s Cathedral, we were awed at the highly detailed and layered icons that reach the equivalent of five stories.

A wedding was taking place. Embroidered towels were laid out like small elegant carpets, symbols of the joint life that was about to begin unfolding. The young couple were linked with another towel. The bride’s veil was edged in Virgin Mary blue. As they circled the priest, candles flickered and the faithful crossed themselves. A flower girl in a red sash clutched a bouquet and shyly studied her feet. And although we had paid the camera fee to photograph the church, several sour-faced babushkas wagged bony fingers at us.

And so we moved on to the Monastery of St. George where we admired the star-festooned blue dome and listened to the delicate voices raised in praise in the nunnery of St. Varlaam of Khutyn.

At Novgorod's Kremlin (the term is a genetic Russian word meaning citadel) we enjoyed the new museum devoted to Russian icons in which more than 300 works are beautifully lit and arranged in historical-chronological order from the 11th to the 20th centuries.


If You Go

If you are traveling independently, it is critical that you obtain a visa before you go. To do so, you must have a letter of invitation from your hotel. Visit the Russian National Tourism Board for details. Be sure to plan ahead and have your paperwork in order.

For reservations at The Grand Hotel Europe, visit

For reservations at the Ararat Park Hyatt, visit

Other Recommended Websites

The Russian Information and Destination Guide (

The Russian National Group
Official guide to Russian Visas, Travel and Hotels


We ended a rather spiritually-infused Russian day with an unexpectedly good Italian dinner at the elaborately decorated Napoli Restaurant at 21/43, Studencheskaya Street. We dined on tortellini filled with Parma ham and parmesan and topped with a rich sauce of walnuts and mushrooms. The rabbit with fried potatoes in a creamy mushroom and partridge berry sauce and tiramisu was also delightful.

Russia in the Interim

Part of the Russian experience unfortunately is flying Aeroflot, which lives up to its poor reputation of dirty planes, indifferent attendants, and other surprises. (During our short flight from St. Petersburg to Moscow, a passenger across the aisle was clipping her toenails.) And if you are anticipating a similar, morose, and less-than-uplifting Russia in Moscow, you will indeed find that in the capital. Russian authors such as Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, and Tolstoy have all commented on the melancholy and somber atmosphere that pervades this most “Russian” of the nation's cities. I can confirm that when visiting Moscow, the traveler’s most useful accessory — a smile — won’t always be met with one in return. However, I can also attest to the fact that Muscovites are in a decidedly more upbeat mood these days.


Moscow’s hard-working residents must get very weary of having to play second fiddle to the much-praised St. Petersburg. You can’t help but appreciate the sense of trying harder that Moscow exhibits, with its construction crews operating round-the-clock. If St. Petersburg is best discovered in its museums, Moscow is best appreciated in its streets.

Less visually and aesthetically seductive than St. Petersburg, Moscow is still a thrilling city. For the visitor, its allure takes more time and patience to uncover however. I will venture to say that St. Petersburg’s energy is feminine, while Moscow's is decidedly masculine. This essential gender difference between the two requires a different set of travel skills if you want to really learn to appreciate Moscow.

Moscow has always been at the center of upheaval of one kind or another, and its new building boom is just part of the race to catch up following the far-reaching impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union. We stayed at the elegant new Ararat Park Hyatt, across from the Kremlin and adjacent to the Bolshoi Theatre. (The latter historic building is also under renovation.) A sleek hotel with a rooftop bar offering unparalleled views of the sprawling city, The Ararat Park offers spacious rooms that feature Armenian prayer rugs and marble baths. This bit of exotica in the center of Moscow is an indication of how Moscow is striving to rebuild not only its infrastructure but its image.

Twice a day, in daylight and twilight, we walked the cobbled streets of Red Square, where Communists once ruled. Red Square is Moscow in a nutshell, a city of contrasts and mixed messages: elegant souvenirs shops; Lenin’s mausoleum; tourists tossing coins over their shoulders at the 0 Kilometre point; the giant GUM department store; Japanese tourists taking pictures of tipsy Russian brides dancing with bridesmaids while bemused new husbands looked on and grinning awkwardly; the falconer and the monkey grinder; the balloon vendors; the strains of a Russian Orthodox choir emanating from a church on the Square; uniformed police officers huddled over cigarettes.

One day, however, when we arrived in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral, we really felt for the first time that we were in Moscow. With its profusion of domes, cupolas, arches, towers and spires, St. Basil's is a visual metaphor for Moscow, and for its historic magnitude. The enormous scale of Red Square and of this iconic church was the Russia of so many photographs I had seen, and of so many historical events I had heard about or seen on news broadcasts. The sensory impact of Moscow almost overwhelmed me.

Later, we went for a 10-minute walk down Tverskaya Yamskaya, the main boulevard leading out of Red Square. It brought us to the city’s oldest food shop, Yesliseyevsky, which has undergone a recent three-million dollar renovation. Inside the hushed atmosphere of this opulent food emporium we examined unique canned and jarred goods, seafood, meat, fruits and vegetables, cheese and pastries. All were displayed with great flair under chandeliers, stained glass, and a gilded ceiling. Norman bought caviar and vodka; I bought chocolate. For dinner, we sat on the sidewalk at Tibet Kitchen on a quiet nearby pedestrian-only street and ate lamb. As we ate, we listened to a guitar player and people-watched.

The next morning, we set off for the immense Izmailovsky Flea Market. On arrival, we passed a scrawny bear and his wrangler trying to entice tourists to pay for a picture. We paid the nominal entrance fee to the market and went in. Inside we were met with a dazzling array of folk art, ornately carved chess sets, linens, Soviet-era memorabilia (fur hats, lighters, bullets) amber jewelry, Christmas ornaments and matrioshka (Russian nesting dolls). For over four hours we wandered the market, stopping only for a lunch of shaslyk, grilled lamb and chicken skewers served with onions, tomatoes, dill and cucumbers dipped in a spicy ketchup-like condiment. and a disc of chewy bread.

After lunch, we spent more than three hours hopping on and off the Moscow Metro. Constructed under Lenin, in part as a Soviet propaganda tool, the Moscow Metro symbolizes the former “great socialist state.” A token costs just 15 rubles and allows you to ride to any of the 150 stations on 11 lines for as long as you like. The Metro is a travel adventure in itself with its stained glass, marble, semi-precious stones, majolica bas reliefs, chandeliers, sconces, bronze statues, paintings and mosaics. Each station seemed more impressive than the last; and I became a bit obsessed with taking pictures of hammers and sickles in their many artistic forms. Trains arrived every 30 seconds — the fastest in the world — in the brightly lit, spotless stations that are testament to a state system that is no more.

The most spectacular meal of our trip was at the 24-hour Café Pushkin, with its old-world ambiance and civility — another long-gone era that is now the stuff of historical memory. We ordered champagne in keeping with the ambiance.

We had come to the end of our three-city tour of Mother Russia and so we toasted each other.

Na zdorovje!