Taking my hat off to Russia

An old Hindi movie song had the following lyrics (translated to English) “The red cap on my head is Russian”. I take my hat off to this wonderful magical place.

“A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” — said Winston Churchill of Russia, the largest country in the world. For me, Russia was Communism, Tolstoy, Bolsheviks, Babushkas, Military Might, Cold War, remote Siberia, Russian orthodox churches : a sum total of all these.

Moscow is the city of many contrasts, The majority of working-class of Moscow are economically deprived, while the city accounts for the world’s highest sale of Mercedes-Benz luxury cars.

We landed in Moscow on a rainy day in July at Domodedovo International Airport, a name I could gather only from my Flight ticket. Russia follows Cyrillic script with a liberal dose of backward R’s (я) , leaving out-of-towners in dark. In Moscow, not a single road sign is in English and it is possible to get lost under five minutes, unless you have a guide to hand hold and introduce you to this historic city.

We visited the Iconic sites of Red Square, Kremlin, St.Basil’s Cathedral , Moscow Metro, Russian Circus and the mandatory souvenir shopping on the pedestrianized Arabat Street. The Red Square is the spacious public space in Moscow and the brightly colored Onion Domes of the Cathedral were quite a sight. As against our ideas of acrobatics and animal antics, The Russian Circus was an impressive hi-tech show of a musical, magical, costume Drama and deserves a special mention. The Moscow Metro is breathtakingly beautiful, some stations are among the deepest in the world and they appear like live museums with great collection of Murals, Sculptures and Chandeliers. A must do on every list.
Our only regret was non-availability of tickets for Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Whether you desire to hear the Sopranos in Operas, watch the nimble toes in Ballets, or attend Orchestras in the Beethoven Hall, you need an advance booking.

After the Grand tour of Moscow, laced with liberal doses of smooth Russian Vodka, we headed north. While Moscow is the Imperial, conservative, grand old lady of Communism, St.Petersburg is the young, liberal, tourist Magnet of Russia. The city was founded by Peter the Great to become Russia’s access to the Baltic and a window to the West. Built on a swampland at the mouth of the River Neva, St. Petersburg is one of the grandest capitals of Europe.

Main attraction of the city is The State Hermitage, by Catherine the Great, housing the Royal Art Collection. While one can spend days admiring the masterpieces, my personal favorite was the monumental oil “ The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt, depicting a Biblical parable of the lost sheep. The affectionate father in the painting brings back fond memories of my own father who displayed tremendous compassion for non-achievers among his brood.

Teeming with tourists and Natives, Nevsky Prospekt is the fashionable boulevard for the twin purposes of shopping and people-watching. Equally impressive is the massive complex of Gostiny Dvor, one of the world’s first indoor shopping malls, with a supposedly total corridor length of around fifteen miles. Our next stop was the Saint Isaac’s basilica, the fourth largest cathedral in the world. Right across the road was the equestrian statue of Peter the Great, erected by Catherine as a tribute to her predecessor, and immortalized in an epic narrative poem by Alexander Pushkin, “ The Bronze Horseman”.

Built on the site where the Tsar Alexander II was killed, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood is a rainbow-colored church with onion domes and great mosaic work, one the most iconic sites in St. Petersburg. Next was a day trip to the imperial estate of Peterhof, with the Grand Palace and The Cascade — a series of fountains, canals, impeccably maintained grounds and gazebos. A five-minute stroll from the gardens will entail you with great views of the Gulf of Finland, the waters of the Baltic Sea rendered dark due to lack of sandy bottom and non-transparency.

St.Petersburg is the City of White Nights due to it’s geographical location at 59.7 degrees North. The city stands at such a high latitude that the sun does not descend below the horizon enough for the sky to grow dark. Our night tour of city was a spectacular visual with the white horizon providing the perfect backdrop for the elegant Heritage buildings.

Russia is too huge a country to travel and see in one visit. Hopefully, there is another day for the Urals, Suzdal, Lake Baikal, Novgorod, the Trans-Siberian railway, and ………….……..