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Eric: Russia: Moscow, St. Petersburg
Moscow, St. Petersburg,

A Tale of Two Cities

by Nancy & Eric Anderson
Photography by Authors

ussia is not the easiest country to explore, even today. A tourist infrastructure doesn't exist, signs are written in Russia's impossible Cyrillic alphabet, and it's hard to find any street Russian who speaks English.

Plus it's the largest country in the world. To travel its width by train takes eight days and nights. Any tourist wishing to savor this country would find its very size indigestible. Russia, the easy way, is to nibble this huge country in small bites. A good beginning would be to stick with European Russia, staying west of the Ural Mountains. And the best appetizer would be to visit, first, the two most famous cities in the country, the two who have collided so often during Russia's tempestuous history: Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Those cities are less than 400 miles apart. It's an easy flight; in fact, some flights to St. Petersburg from the West are routed via Moscow. But given the unbelievably high cost of hotels in Moscow -- a city for three years topping surveys of the World's Most Expensive Cities -- we discovered a better answer than flying between them: Go by river boat up the expanded Volga-Baltic Waterway and not only enjoy the two fabulous cities that book-end its waters but taste the very heart of Russia as you languidly meander past its medieval towns.
Many river boat companies have discovered the tourist attraction of the Volga, the longest river in Europe. We went with Viking River Cruises, "the largest river cruise company in the world." In contrast to many river cruise companies, it owns its own boats.

Viking River Cruises had us, the first day, barreling in a bus down the main drag in Moscow, Leningradsky Prospekt. Natalie, our guide, pointed out places of interest. "That's Cafe Pushkin, the most expensive restaurant in Moscow and that one, there, is the least expensive." She was pointing to McDonalds. "When it opened in 1986 Russians lined up in queues for three hours. Over there," she said, "is the Bolshevik Chocolate Factory and that's the wedding palace for marriages."

Our heads spun
There were statues everywhere of persons whose names are completely unknown to Westerners. "And there," pointed out Natalie, "is a palace with statues of lions that look like crocodiles because the sculptor had never seen lions!"

We were on our way from our river boat port to a concert at the Gallery Tretyakov, next door to the famous museum of the same name. It was a captivating classical folklore performance introduced by the conductor who told his audience, "Tonight we will be playing music from Russian history, Russian culture and maybe even Russian soul."

We discovered Russia's soul many times on this trip that took us into the very being of a country that could have been at one time our enemy in battle. When we watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier it reminded us all nations have their sorrows because of war.

We found a nation that had suffered for a century yet still could laugh. "That building over there is our parliament where so many representatives labor to make our life harder," said Natalie.

We toured museums, mostly ones we've never heard of.

And we saw churches. Boy! Did we see churches.

We recall once being on a tour through France and, as we struggled up a steep slope at the end of a long day, a fellow tourist grumbled to his wife, "ABC!"

"What does that mean?" we asked.

"Another bloody cathedral," he replied.

We had a lot of ABCs on this cruise yet they were undoubtedly one of the best parts of the trip.

Later we were shown the intricacies and the architectural triumphs of the Moscow Metro. Moscow's underground rail system is surely something the Soviet Union did right. The maps were helpful and enabled us to travel around on the free time of our second day in the city. With the group we visited Red Square, photographed St. Basil's Cathedral, checked out the celebrated GUM department store and watched the changing of the guard at the grave of the unknown soldier.

honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Moscow

There were other Viking optional choices: out-of-town trips to the New Maiden Nunnery; a tour to the former royal estate at Kolmenskoye; or an excursion to the city once called Zagorskthe or; easier for those on their own, a visit to the Museum of the Armed Forces - or, a real temptation, to the State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia's largest art museum, housing more than 100,000 Russian works, many nationalized from private collections.

Next day, however, we explored Moscow ourselves and chose to go to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, a visit that proved to be one of the highlights of our trip. We went looking for its 1898 display of impressionists and European art understanding some paintings that were now on display had been hidden for decades for ideological and political reasons. We walked into rooms, one full of Van Goghs, one of Monets, another of Renoirs, and yet others overflowing with Gauguin and Picasso. But it was the individual paintings that overwhelmed us: such as a most moving scene of a wedding staged before a rural family called Nuptial Benediction 1880-81 by Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret; and After School 1844 by Ferdinand Georg Waldmuller.

Nuptial Benediction by Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

The memory of this art persisted as we passed St. Basil's Cathedral next day even as we toured the Kremlin in our included Viking-guided tour, studying first the ten Imperial Faberge Easter Eggs in the Armory -- of the 54 to 57 made only 44 are still known to exist. We looked at the huge boots worn by Peter the Great made by the monarch himself, we surveyed the solid throne of Ivan the Terrible and we gaped at the Coronation dress with the 17 inch waist made for Catherine the Great - one of the 15,000 dresses made for her because she never wore a dress more than once. We staggered through the Armory, our guide pointing to bejeweled crowns, some with a thousand diamonds, and gilded Cinderella-like carriages, and rooms almost suffocating with religious icons. We saw ornamental clocks taller than a man and elaborate Czar horse tackle that included silver horse shoes and nails. We saw porcelain and crystal and amber and ivory and gold plates and silver goblets … and by the time we left the armory we, at least, understood why the peasants and students began a revolution in October of 1917.

In contrast the Czar's great cannon cast in 1586 and weighing 40 tons seemed downright sensible, just what every army needed. The most colorful church we entered in the Kremlin, the Cathedral of the Assumption was almost overwhelming. It had the Monomakh Throne the royal seat of Ivan the Terrible 1533-84; and the Tabernacle that included the remains of one Patriarch Hemogen who apparently starved to death in 1612 during the Polish invasion. This cathedral displayed those multi-paneled iconostasis walls that dominate all Russian churches, though this wall dated from 1652.

Our boat seems to sense it was now downhill to St. Petersburg -- literally. In fact we passed through 18 locks and dropped nearly 600 feet on our meandering 1100 mile cruise from Moscow. The "Blue Route" along the Svir river and through Lake Ladoga brought our boat late at night into this famous city that Peter the Great created, in a mere seven years as if he were God, to be his "window on his western world."

art museum at the Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Our greatest anticipation was for the world-famous series of art museums, the Hermitage, the "gluttony of art" fashioned by Catherine the Great for her Winter Palace. She began in extraordinary fashion: 800 canvases snapped up in an initial order across Europe followed by 400 more, then 600, all in 10 days. She had the funds and the impoverished rulers of Western Europe had the art. Her accumulations continued throughout her lifetime, collections from ancient Egypt to early 20th Century Europe -- more than 3 million items to show the world: 1,000 rooms, 12,000 statues, 18,000 paintings and one million coins, for example. Therein lies the problem; no one can do justice to this visual feast. Not only is there too much displayed, some of it with less than ideal presentation, but the very popularity of the sprawling museum creates such crowds it can be as much fun as flying today. We suffered, too, because only 37 of the most celebrated 57 showrooms were opened to the public. We were told that much of the famous art was on international tour to bring in badly-needed funds to restore the five museums that constitute the Hermitage.

the Catherine Palace in Pushkin

There were crowds, too, at the village of Pushkin, a few miles out of town that has Catherine's Palace, her glorious summer estate, the main attraction being her Versailles-like home with its 600 foot-long façade -- again stuffed with possessions of the period. Badly damaged in World War II it has been magnificently rebuilt. Like the Hermitage it considers the question: Is more better? with the answer, Yes. And the thought: When is enough, enough? with the response, Never!

Viking River Cruises offered, as in Moscow, optional tours here to both Peter the Great's Peterhof Palace and to the "aristocratic mansion" once owned by the wealthy Yusupov family until 1917, but to us the real charm of St. Petersburg lay not in the magnificent places that stand beyond its borders but in its streets and along the canals that gave the city its name "the Venice of the North." We used a public bus to get from the river port to a Metro station then it was a quick trip into Nevskiy Prospekt, the main thoroughfare.

We walked all over St. Pete during Navy Day when patriotic Russians had taken to the streets and would embrace anyone even tourists. They willingly posed for photographs and gave directions in sign language. But with a good walking map it was easy to find the famous Church-On-Spilled-Blood, completed in 1907 on the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The church was reopened after extensive restoration in 1997. Although its Eastern Russian Revival style is unusual in a city that Peter the Great built to embrace the West and its architecture, the magnificent church with its incredible75,000 square feet of mosaics might well be the highlight of any visit to St. Petersburg.

If You Go

Visas are required for Russia so allow adequate time for that. We came to Russia with invaluable guide books: DK Eyewitness Travel Moscow that cost us $23 and, an even better buy at $12, DK Eyewitness Travel Top 10 St. Petersburg. Both had superb maps but we found a company online, Russian National Group, that has an office in New York City and great walking maps of Russian cities:

St Basil's Cathedral, MoscowIn both cities, the closest Metro station was an easy walk or bus ride and the busy metro itself (once we got a Viking guide to print the Cyrillic name of our downtown Metro stop) was actually easier for us to negotiate than our own listless San Diego trolley system! Viking included in both Moscow and St. Petersburg a full day and a half of guided tours with admission to the major attractions and evening performances of a classical folklore concert in Moscow and a ballet performance (Swan Lake) in St. Petersburg. We had a free time day in each city where Viking offered optional tours at prices from 37 to 59 Euros each which included, for each museum, transportation from the boat dock, admission and a group guide. These tours were very popular with most of the passengers who argued the increased cost was minor compared to total costs and the convenience, but we feel travel writers have to explore on their own to understand and enjoy a country. Also one of us is Scottish and, er, frugal. In Moscow we did the Pushkin Museum for a total of about $2 for our Metro tickets and 600 rubles ($26) for our Pushkin admissions.

Russia by river is not inexpensive. Paying up front in US dollars for the cruise may stabilize costs as the world continues to spurn the currency we once thought special. But being charged on board for water, sodas and wine in Units where one Unit equals one Euro sure hurts. Cabins vary in price according to when you book and what you want. Air costs are prohibitive. We snatched up air when prices dropped briefly but even then we paid $3300 for two in bottom-line Economy. We flew Lufthansa and used Viking River Cruises for air purchase as it included airport transfers.

Tell Eric what you think of his article.
In the meantime, here are some of the feedback we have already received:

* * * * *

Enjoyed your blog on Romania. Noticed you called Bucharest "The
Paris of the East." I wonder, is there any city not called "The Paris of
something." I've read San Francisco is 'the Paris of the West,' Buenos
Aires 'The Paris of South America,' and even Tromso, Norway 'The Paris of
the Arctic.'

Terry Cowan - Fresno

* * * * *

Hi Terry,

Thanks for writing to TravelingBoy. And thanks for educating me; I didn't
know that about Tromso, didn't even know there was a Tromso. I heard Bangkok
called the Venice of the East when I was there and, in two weeks, I'm
heading for the Venice of the North, St. Petersburg, Russia.

It does become a bit silly, doesn't it? But we are originally an immigrant
nation that was Eurocentric. Maybe it gave our forefathers confidence even
courage when they took old names, old ideas to the New World with them. I
know I feel nostalgic if I drive around Ontario, Canada and see all the
British place names.

I appreciate your email. Thank you for writing.


Eric -

Enjoyed your article on Madrid. I noticed that you find it superior to Rome. Most of the Spanish folks that I meet seem to prefer Barcelona. How would you rate that city?

Samuel K

* * * * *

Hi Samuel,

We loved Barcelona although driving around the city was surprisingly complicated as our maps were inadequate. The cathedral had scaffolding around it so I couldn't get the pictures I wanted but we found the architecture fascinating and the Picasso museum rewarding. We were anxious to get on the road to Costa Brava and didn't have more than a couple of days in Barcelona.

Thanks for writing.

Great article on Madrid. I've heard there is a rivalry between the people of Madrid and Barcelona. In which city are the people friendlier? How about for hipness? I noticed you were Scottish. I felt a similar thing in Scotland, with a Glasgow v. Edinburgh vibe.

Santa Monica

* * * * *

Thank you for writing to TravelingBoy, Gary. We found Barcelona friendlier.

Maybe that's because it's not the capital and it's not so busy either. Maybe it's because the Gaudi architectural influence is pervasive and -- to both its citizens and tourists -- comforting. Maybe it's because Barcelona is the gateway to the work of artist Salvatore Dali, and his spirit catches us. (I don't know much about art but I've seen a lot of Dali's work enough to think he never took himself too seriously and often painted tongue in cheek. Maybe fun people spring for fun places?) Hipness? Madrid is more formal and dressy but Barcelona, I believe, is more hip maybe, again, because it's more fun.

Your points about Scotland are valid. It's more than a joke. The Glaswegians are more down to earth. I think we see it here in the belief that if you had a flat tire in Middle America passers-by would be more inclined to stop and help than perhaps New Englanders.

- Eric

Dear Eric,

I liked the article. As I read it, I was wondering how you as a physician were influenced by Hippocrates. What influence did this historical figure have on the practice of medicine beyond the obvious 'oath.' Why is Hippocrates considered to be such a paragon of medicine? DWA - San Pedro, CA

* * * * *

Dear David,

Thank you for writing to

Hippocrates is revered because he believed his duty was to the individual patient, not to the community at large. This is a very important premise. The Romans, whose empire followed that of the Greeks, achieved much in health matters by emphasizing clean drinking water and personal hygiene, and created great national works like aquaducts and public baths but wealthy Romans apparently preferred Greek doctors as their personal physicians.

Hippocrates is also respected because he brought intellectual thought to diagnosis. He taught his students to use their five senses in assessing patients and was openly critical of the junk science of his day as practiced by the priest-physicians who preyed on the fear and ignorance of the ill persons who came to them.

It is true that not all medical chools today require graduating doctors to take the Hippocratic Oath but most conscientious physicians base their lifetime commitment to the practice of medicine on the life and teachings of that one man.

Or so I think. Perhaps if we knew more about our heroes they would seem less heroic. But in Hippocrates' case he did leave a record of his thoughts and some of his principles are today as strong as ever.

Thank you for writing, it is appreciated.


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