When I was told that my colleague, Natalia, and I would be accompanying Cranleigh School on their history trip to Moscow and St Petersburg, my mind raced with visions of grandeur and Stalinist architecture, fur coats and ushanka-hats. Like most people, I had my preconceptions of Russia. However, when visiting new countries we should be careful not to make presumptions about a place before having the opportunity to see it for ourselves, especially in the case of the world’s largest nation boasting a population of over 144 million residents!
Arriving at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, we were greeted by an engaging and welcoming Siberian lady, also named Natalia, who informed us that she was to be our guide throughout our stay in Moscow. She helped us to our coach to meet our driver, Sergei, and we set off through the intensely manic traffic of Moscow, eyes pinned to the windows as we made our way towards the Sunflower Park Hotel to check in and rest up.
Sunflower Park Hotel, as unassuming as it was from the outside, provided everything that we could have wanted from our stay in Moscow. The dinners and breakfasts were well-stocked with fresh buffets and being located less than a five minute walk for our nearest subway station was the icing on the cake. Entering the hotel from the minus degrees of the Moscow streets, we were warmly welcomed by the staff into the equally welcoming hotel lobby and contemplated an early night before our first big day in the former USSR.
The ever adventurous Cranleigh School decided it would be a better idea to head straight for a late night subway trip to Red Square, and what a great idea this was! Red Square and the surrounding areas are as charming as they are mammoth. The famous GUM department store here displays riches of the 21st century; Chanel, Louis Vuitton, D&G to name a few. Yet their sparkling windows reflect colossal and intimidating soviet buildings and religious monuments such as St Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin. Walking around one corner from a swanky coffee shop, you’re struck by the contrast when faced with the impressiveness of one of Stalin’s Seven Sisters sky scrapers, looming grey and unnerving over you and your latte.
This was our first chance to see the beautifully designed subway stations of Moscow, adorned with statues, carvings and stunning chandeliers. Although, watch out for the subway doors – they don’t mess around! With little warning, these doors will close for departure and if you’re not ready then you’re not getting on that carriage. I’m saying this from experience after nearly losing an arm on my first evening! (Okay, I’m exaggerating a little but just make sure you’re all on the same carriage together as you wouldn’t want to leave anyone behind).
Top Tip: I would advise any visitor to try and view Red Square by night; the perfect picture opportunity for our first few hours in the city!
We woke up on our first full day in Moscow really feeling the cold. We started for Red Square again and in the daylight, these buildings are no less beautiful. Of course I’d seen pictures of St Basil’s Cathedral and The Armoury but they still surpassed my expectations. We had our walking tour to Lenin’s Tomb followed by our tour in the Kremlin grounds and witnessed the treasures and artefacts of the rich history of Russia, from ruby and sapphire encrusted orthodox bibles to royal horse-drawn carriages.
After stopping for lunch to refuel, we set off for the Red Army Museum where we were offered the guided tour or the opportunity to wander at our leisure. All artefacts in the building are donated by historians and owners or bought at auction by Moscow museums and nearly all of the items in this enormous museum are of great historical importance. You have the chance to see everything from WW2 artillery to the original freedom flag shown waving over the Reichstag Building in that iconic photo taken during the Battle of Berlin.
We boarded our coach for a sightseeing tour of the city via numerous golden-domed cathedrals showcasing the most Moscovian of architecture followed by a trip to the immense monument of Peter the Great over the partly frozen Moskva River. At our stop by a frozen lake, rumoured to be the inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’, the students of Cranleigh took a detour to the nearby park to play in the snow by moonlight and throw snowballs before heading to the ice-skating rink in Gorky Park. Rink may be an understatement though; I would say it was more like an ice-skating village! You could stop for hot chocolate along the way; you could take winding side streets as alternative routes; I even watched an ice hockey match as I skated along listening to Michael Jackson blaring from the speakers – what an incredible way to end our first full day in Russia!
Today began with a short coach ride into the countryside where the snow was unspoilt and the drifts were waist high for our tour of Vladimir Lenin’s House Museum in all of its splendour and elegance. Original items belonging to Lenin and his family, along with Venetian glass windows four meters in height, made this a truly amazing spectacle.
We ate lunch in My My (pronounced Moo Moo) Restaurant and then it was onwards to the Great Patriotic War Museum with its grounds covering 160 hectares. There was time for one more snowball fight before entering this enormous museum. Rooms in this building honour the thousands of Russians who’ve earned honourable mentions for bravery and the millions more who lost their lives in the war. As interesting as it was harrowing, I could have spent days wandering the grounds of this museum, soaking up knowledge on the Russian ways of life during these difficult times.
We rounded this day off with a trip to the thousand year old, kilometre-long Arbat Street for some souvenir shopping and a dinner with the lovely Oriel School who were also touring with Rayburn Tours this week. After a short sightseeing tour by night on our coach, via Sparrow Hill for panoramic views of Moscow, we found ourselves at Leningradsky Train Station saying our farewells to our guide and boarding our overnight train to St Petersburg! This was a highlight for many students and I found this experience, rocking along on the train tracks for those hours, to be possibly my best sleep of the trip. My colleague Natalia found this experience a little claustrophobic; I’d have called it cosy!