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Iconic itineraries Second in a Series

Some places are heaven

for the independent traveler. And some, well, aren’t. For our series “Iconic Itineraries,” we picked six destinations that are must-sees but whose massive tourism infrastructures are so geared toward groups that having an authentic, unique trip can feel next to impossible. Not to worry: Working with the world’s leading travel specialists, we’ve created step-by-step trips that let you see the best each place has to offer, but on your terms. Each of our highly detailed itineraries has been vetted and perfected by a Condé Nast Traveler editor, and each can be bought as is with just one phone call or customized at will. So here is:

Eight Perfect Days in . . .

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Russia: Moscow and St. Petersburg * B y We n d y P e r r i n

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c h i n a • e g y p t • i n d i a • s ou t h e a s t a s i a

*Visit cntraveler.com/iconictrips for the ultimate six-day trip to Peru, including the Andes, the Incas, and the Amazon. For more tips and insights, visit Wendy Perrin’s blog: Go to cntraveler.com/perrinpost and, under “Topics Covered,” C o n d click E ´ n aon s t “Destination: T r av e l e r / Russia.” c n t r a v e l e r. c o m

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Illustrations by Matthew Cook


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Iconic itineraries R u s s i a : M o s c o w a n d S t . Pe t e r s b u r g

The Problem

Navigating Russia is like trying to pass through a series of locked doors—without the keys. Egalitarian it’s not: Many of the museums and palaces, or at least the best sections of them, are either tough to get tickets for or closed to the general public. Fail to find a way in and you’ll miss the must-sees. Working against you are a gazillion inscrutable rules and the absence of any customer-service ethic, not to mention the crowds. From mid-May through mid-September—the season when nearly all tourists visit—the major museums and palaces are mob scenes. Because tour groups get favored treatment, as an independent traveler you spend much of your time battling them.

The Solution

It’s not going in the off-season: Even if you don’t mind the cold, the days are too short for sightseeing, and museum and palace hours are too limited. Nor is the answer going with a group: You’re likely to get a dictatorial guide with a customer-is-always-wrong mindset. Nor is a cruise the answer: You don’t get enough time at the best places. No, the solution is to call a Russia specialist such as Greg Tepper of Exeter International (see “Wendy Perrin’s 128 Top Travel Specialists,” August 2006, or go online to cntraveler.com/travelagentfinder). Tepper has handpicked flexible, English-speaking guides and will create a tour customized to your tastes. As he points out, however, “The easy part is making the lines go away. The hard part is making the crowds go away once you get inside.” To accomplish that, go just before the season begins—meaning late April or early May, when the sky is blue and the daylight lasts 15 hours—and start in Moscow on a Thursday (read on for why). Here’s the eightday itinerary Tepper and I designed that includes the highlights of Russia’s two most famous cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg.

[Fig. 3] The Kremlin’s Diamond Vault contains Russia’s crown jewels—including Catherine the Great’s 5,000-diamond Coronation Crown—and is shockingly splendid.

TheTip Dollars speak louder than rubles, so bring about $500 in crisp new bills of varying denominations for tips and shopping at markets. Always tip waiters directly—otherwise, they’ll never see the money.

Day 1 (Thursday): Land in Moscow

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here are two Moscows: One is an ugly city of gray buildings and long lines where everyone glares and barks at you. The other is a world of gilt and diamonds that welcomes you with white gloves—and which most Muscovites never even glimpse. So don’t skip Moscow because people have told you there’s little worth the trip. Those people didn’t see it properly. Arriving on a Thursday puts you in Moscow over a weekend, when traffic is lighter, hotels are cheaper, and yet everything you’ll want to visit will be open. Given how vast distances are in Moscow, it’s worth the bucks to stay at the hotel with the best location: the Royal Meridien Hotel National. The best room for your dollar is a studio with a Kremlin view (7-495-258-7000; national.ru; for rates, see “The Basics,” page 100). Have the hotel or tour operator Exeter International send a car to pick you up at the airport, since taxis are unsafe and unreliable. If you’ve taken Delta’s nonstop flight from JFK, you’ll arrive at the hotel in the early afternoon. Get your bearings and minimize jet lag by hitting the sidewalks and keeping active until 7 or 8 p.m. There’s plenty to see within a 15-minute radius of the Hotel National, and it’s a safe area. Walk across Red Square to St. Basil’s Cathedral and back via GUM, the turn-of-thecentury shopping arcade now filled with designer boutiques catering to the affluent New Russians. Hungry? Grab a quick bite at a café, either inside GUM (on the third floor) or in the Manezh underground mall (third or ground floor). Prefer a big-deal meal? Nearby are the Vogue Café, where locals dine on Western cuisine

For a decent level of English-speaking service and a resourceful concierge, you have to SPLURGE ON A FIVE-STAR HOTEL. To avoid pricey private cars and bone-weary legs, choose one near the metro 88

(7/9 Kuznetsky Most; 7-95-923-1701; entrées, $16– $30), and Godunov, where tourists dine on Russian cuisine (5/1 Teatralnaya Sq.; 7-495-298-56090; entrées, $15–$40). Walk 20 to 30 minutes up Tverskaya, Moscow’s main street, to the historic gourmet food store Eliseev’s Gastronome (14 Tverskaya). Head back to the north end of Red Square at 6 p.m. and visit Kazan Cathedral during evening services. You can walk in and out as you please, since Russians don’t sit in church: They move around, kneeling and kissing icons. Because the Russian Orthodox Church is at the core of the country’s culture, appreciating it is critical. Next, pop into the State Historical Museum gift shop opposite the cathedral to get a feel for the range of Russian crafts and souvenirs that will tempt you during your trip. But don’t buy anything yet! You’ll find better prices at the Izmailovsky Bazaar on Saturday. Ready to collapse? Your hotel is only a five-minute walk away.

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[Fig. 1] Many soldiers guard the Kremlin, including these at the monument to soldiers who died in the Great Patriotic War (World War II to us).

Day 2 (Friday): The Kremlin and Novodevichy Convent

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ince lunch won’t be until 2 p.m. at the earliest, chow down on blinis and salmon at the National’s extravagant breakfast buffet (included in the room rate). What you probably know about the Kremlin [Fig. 1] is that it’s a fourteenth-century walled fort containing several of Russia’s most important museums, churches, and palaces. What you might not know is that you’ll cover at least three miles on foot; it will take a minimum of four hours; and no chairs, snacks, or bottled water will be available to help you along. If your English-speaking guide meets you at your hotel at 9:30 a.m., you can get into the Kremlin as soon as it opens, at 10 a.m. (Last year, in high season only, the Kremlin opened at 9:30 for nonresidents; that could happen again this year.) Don’t miss the ancient thrones, costumes, and Fabergé eggs in the Armory [Fig. 2] or the Orlov diamond (the world’s fourth-largest) and other imperial regalia in the Diamond Vault [Fig. 3].

[Fig. 2] At the Kremlin’s Armory, see the rooms of imperial and diplomatic gifts, including 12 Fabergé eggs.

C o n dE ´ n a s t T r av e l e r / c n t r a v e l e r. c o m


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What to Pack Comfortable walking shoes, clothes in somber colors, a nice outfit for the theater, an inconspicuous camera, a collapsible umbrella, and a coat that has a small interior loop for hanging on hooks (if it doesn’t, coat check attendants will yell at you—hangers are rare).

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The diadems look like lace made from diamonds, and the jeweled flowers are so delicate and shimmery you’ll think they’re blowing in the wind. Your morning inside the crammed Kremlin will leave you craving tranquillity. So after a salad at Eat & Talk (7 Mokhovaya; 7-495-961-2193; entrées, $10–$22)—the closest spot for a quick bite—head for one of Moscow’s few picturesque oases: Novodevichy Convent. Take the red line from Biblioteka Imeni Lenina four stops to Sportivnaya and you’ll be just a ten-minute walk away. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is where czars confined their wives and sisters when they proved inconvenient, forcing them to take the veil and relinquish their worldly goods. Unless you’re a history nut, don’t spend time indoors; just see the gardens and the seventeenth-century

{ The Overrated

Baroque Russian architecture, stop at Smolensk Cathedral (a five-domed white wedding cake of a church), and then head for beautiful, leafy Novodevichy Cemetery [Fig. 4], across the street. The artistic gravestones of the country’s most prestigious cemetery speak volumes about the Russian people—who they consider important and what traits and accomplishments they value. By the time you return to your hotel via metro, you will have walked six to eight miles today. If that’s too much, consider splurging on a car and driver after lunch (see “The Navigator: Moscow,” above). The car might allow you the time and energy for a late-afternoon visit to Arbat Street—a pedestrian boulevard of cafés, shops, and stalls that is Moscow’s version of Montmartre—before returning to your hotel. A great place for

Don’t see that hotel or museum you’ve always heard about? Wondering why the Golden Ring isn’t recommended? It’s not an oversight. For what we’ve excluded—and why—visit cntraveler.com/iconictrips.

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C o n dE ´ n a s t T r av e l e r / c n t r a v e l e r. c o m

Map by Joyce Pendola

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Iconic itineraries R u s s i a : M o s c o w a n d S t . Pe t e r s b u r g dinner is the stylish and popular Café Pushkin (26A Tverskoy; 7-95-229-5590; entrées, $25–$65).

Day 3 (Saturday): Moscow’s Soviet Secrets

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[Fig. 4] The elaborate gravestones in Novodevichy Cemetery are a primer on Russian history. The late Yuri Nikulin, a clown in the Old Moscow Circus, is still beloved.

[Fig. 6] Stalin’s secret wartime bunker is an underground palace compared with, say, Winston Churchill’s.

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esterday was all about pre-eighteenth-century Russia. St. Petersburg is the best place to learn about the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but only in Moscow can you begin to comprehend what happened to Russia in the twentieth century. First stop: Lenin’s Tomb, right on Red Square, where the chemically preserved body of the Soviet Union’s founder has been on public display for 83 years. The mausoleum opens at 10 a.m., but the line grows exponentially starting at 9:30 —and it’s one of the few lines that Exeter International is not always able to bypass—so be there with your guide at 9:25. Lenin’s body itself may strike you as macabre or diminished—it’s surprisingly puny and waxy—but the whole bizarre process is a visceral education in Communist culture. Bags, cameras, cell phones, and sharp or glass objects are not allowed inside. If you have no guide to hold them for you while you’re in the tomb, you must check them at the State Historical Museum (which means leaving the line you’ve been standing in, checking your stuff, then waiting all over again). After you’ve passed through the metal detector, the unspoken rules are: Don’t speak or smile inside the mausoleum (these are signs of irreverence); keep your hands out of your pockets (so the guards know you’re not grabbing a weapon); stand just a few inches behind the person in front of you (the Russian way to wait); do not stray from the line as you file past Lenin’s body. After the tomb, you will pass the burial sites of Stalin and other Communist muckety-mucks (graves that had the Russians around me shaking with tears). You will end up a 15-minute walk from the place where you checked your cell phone and camera. Sound like too much of a hassle? Remember that Lenin’s body won’t be around forever: Many powerful Russians object to such idolatry of a mass murderer— not to mention the millions of dollars spent on chemical baths for his body—and want him buried. To gain an understanding of Russia’s love-hate relationship with communism, take the metro from Teatralnaya to Tverskaya and head for the Museum of Contemporary Russian History (21 Tverskaya; 7-495-699-6724; russianmuseums.info). Located in Russia’s most prestigious pre-1917 hangout, the English Club, the museum elucidates the birth and death of the Soviet state from the Russian perspective. You need an English-speaking guide to explain the artifacts, which range from late-nineteenthcentury torture instruments to stones thrown by members of the proletariat in the 1905 Revolution. In showing

just how severe economic and social conditions were— and how many Russian lives were taken by revolution and war in the first half of the twentieth century (a staggering 55 million)—the museum helps explain why the country is the way it is and why Russians act the way they do. Grab lunch at one of the coffee shops near Pushkin Square, then take the metro [Fig. 5] from Tverskaya back to Teatralnaya, switch to the dark-blue line, and ride six stops eastward to Partizanskaya. There you’ll find Izmailovsky Park, with its huge outdoor bazaar selling Russian crafts, apparel, and other souvenirs—everything from fur hats to Lomonosov porcelain. It has the same items you’ve seen in gift shops, only the selection is greater and the prices lower. Not a shopper? There’s another reason to come to this Soviet-style working-class neighborhood. A 15-minute walk away, hidden beneath a stadium from the 1930s, lies Stalin’s secret underground bunker [Fig. 6]. The workers at the vegetable markets next door have no idea it’s there, nor are they aware of the secret underground train track leading to the Kremlin 10.5 miles away. The bunker is off-limits to the general public, but Exeter International can get you in. If you’re traveling with another couple and can split the $720 fee, in my opinion it’s worth it. Although only 5,000 square feet of the million-square-foot fortress are visible, I was left with an unforgettable impression of how similar—in ostentation, paranoia, and corruption—

[Fig. 5]

Moscow’s metro stations, used as air raid shelters during World War II, are the world’s biggest and grandest. They’re decorated with statues, frescoes, mosaics, marble, and even chandeliers.

Unless you’re a Renoir nut, skip the Pushkin Museum’s French Impressionists building in Moscow: YOU’LL SEE MORE THAN 250 FRENCH IMPRESSIONIST works in St. Petersburg Stalin was to the czars who preceded him. Top off your day with the traditional form of entertainment favored by the proletariat: the circus. In one night at the Old Moscow Circus [Fig. 7] (a two-minute walk from the Tsvetnoy Bulvar metro stop; circus nikulin.ru), you will see more smiling faces, colorful clothing, and exuberant spirits than on all the other days of your trip combined. You will also see a bear doing a handstand on a tightrope and an elephant stomping its foot while playing the harmonica.

Day 4 (Sunday): Building the New Russia

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erhaps the most powerful symbol of the postCommunist reconstruction and spiritual revival shaping Russia today is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (xxc.ru). If you can get there by 9 a.m. (from your hotel, take the red line two stops to Kropotkinskaya), the one weekly service should still be going on. This awesome church, Russia’s largest, is an exact replica of the original nineteenth-century one that was demolished in 1931 under Stalin and turned into a swimming pool. It was resur-

[Fig. 7] In the lobby of the Old Moscow Circus, children can pose for photo ops with tigers, bears, monkeys, elephants, and camels.

C o n dE ´ n a s t T r av e l e r / c n t r a v e l e r. c o m


Iconic itineraries R u s s i a : M o s c o w a n d S t . Pe t e r s b u r g

[Fig. 9] Russian stages are slanted and are best viewed from the lowest side box, a quarter to a third of the way back from the stage.

[Fig. 8] When you’re at the Tretyakov, pop into the church next door, St. Nicholas in Tolmachy, to see Our Lady of Vladimir, Russia’s most sacred icon since 1131.

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rected in the 1990s at a cost of $220 million. At 9:30 a.m., take a quick stroll around the neighborhood, known as Ostozhenka. This is the city’s new Golden Mile and is rapidly filling with swank housing for newly affluent Kremlin types. At 10 a.m., hit the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, a five-minute walk from the cathedral (12 Volkhonka; museum.ru/gmii/defengl.htm). There are two reasons to visit, and they should take only an hour. First is the gold treasures from ancient Troy that Russia stole from Germany in 1945 and kept hidden for half a century, until admitting it had them in the late 1990s. (Germany wants the horde back; Russia won’t hear of it.) Second is a collection of life-size replicas of the world’s best art, as determined by Moscow State University. The university decided a century ago that Russian students who can’t afford to travel to see the world’s best art ought to be exposed to it anyway, so it replicated, with painstaking exactitude, 750 of what it considers to be the finest sculptural and architectural works from ancient times through the Renaissance. As you stroll past parts of the Athenian Parthenon, Assyrian palaces, and medieval German churches, you’ll see everything from an Egyptian statue of the pharaoh Chefren to the British Museum’s Babylonian friezes, the Louvre’s Venus de Milo, and the Accademia’s nine-foot-tall David, by Michelangelo. It’s a real trip. Getting from the Pushkin to the Tretyakov Gallery [Fig. 8] by metro takes too long on a Sunday morning, so hail a gypsy cab (but not without a guide!). The Tretyakov (10 Lavrushinskiy; tretyakovgallery.ru) is arguably the world’s best collection of Russian art and contains paintings that are touchstones of popular culture. By the time you have lunch at the museum café, it will be 2 p.m. or so. How you choose to spend your final afternoon in Moscow should depend on your particular interests. Are you a Russian literature fan? Tolstoy’s city house is an interesting window into how the nineteenth-century intelligentsia lived (21 Lva Tolstovo; tolstoymuseum.ru). Are you a vodka aficionado? Exeter International can arrange a vodka tasting, with traditional accompaniments, at the Petrov Vodkin restaurant, where you’ll find more than 300 vodkas ($250 for up to four people). Need gifts for the kids? The Matryoshka Museum has an exquisite collection of unique handmade dolls. Many on display are actually for sale and cost less than the kitschy ones in tourist gift shops (7/1 Leontievsky Pereulok). Spend your final night in Moscow at the Bolshoi Ballet [Fig. 9], marveling at the perfection of every detail— from the curve of each ballerina’s arm to the sparkle of her costume (Theatre Sq.; 7-495-250-7317; bolshoi.ru;

best tickets, $120–$500). The historic Bolshoi Theater is under renovation until 2008, so performances are held next door at the New Stage and typically start at 7 p.m. If afterward you want to do as the New Russians do—which means spending like there’s no tomorrow (since Russians watched their life savings evaporate in the late twentieth century, many don’t see the point in saving for the future)—ask your hotel concierge to get you into a nightclub such as Diaghilev, where an evening will set you back at least $1,500 (3 Karetnyi Ryad, Bldg. 7), or dine in replicated Baroque splendor at Turandot (26/5 Tverskoy; 7-495-739-0011; entrées, $20–$50) or the Savoy Hotel (3/6 Rozhdestvenka; 7-495-620-8500; entrées, $25–$60).

Day 5 (Monday): Fly to St. Petersburg

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t. Petersburg is a city of hidden treasures,” my guide Yelena Kirpitchnicova told me. She was not being hyperbolic. When the Revolution hit in 1917 and Russia’s nobility fled the country, they stashed their jewelry and other valuables behind walls,

Only with an appointment and a guide can you see the czars’ bejeweled excesses in the HERMITAGE MUSEUM’s storerooms, which contain four-fifths of the collection, and its Treasure Gallery wrongly assuming that they would come back to retrieve them. “We don’t know what’s still hidden in all the buildings they haven’t yet restored,” she said. St. Petersburg conceals fewer of its sights than Moscow does, but for optimal sightseeing you still need a well-connected expediter [Fig. 10] and, on at least two of your four days there, a private car. Meet your guide and driver upon landing around midday at the St. Petersburg airport (the 11:15 a.m. flight from Moscow is a good option). As you drive past countless canals and parks and into the heart of the city, it will strike you as more picturesque, European, and pedestrianfriendly than Moscow. Get out of the car at the Strelka—a spit on an island in the Neva River that is a former port of St. Petersburg—to see the Rostral Columns (twin lighthouses) and to take in the views of the Winter Palace on one side of the river and the Peter and Paul Fortress on the other. After lunch on the Strelka at Restoran (2 Tamozhenny; 7-812-327-8979; entrées, $15–$30)—order the pelmeni (dumplings)—continue to the city’s birthplace, the Peter and Paul Fortress, built by Peter the Great in 1703. Check out its cathedral, which houses the tombs of every czar since Peter. (Its Imperial Prison, where famous rebels, from Peter’s son to Dostoyevsky, were jailed, is closed

[Fig. 10] St. Petersburg’s guides must qualify for a different license for each museum or palace, so avoid guides with only five or six licenses. Mine had ten.

C o n dE ´ n a s t T r av e l e r / c n t r a v e l e r. c o m


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for reconstruction until at least 2008.) Continue on to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, once the country’s largest, with room for 14,000 worshippers (eng.cathedral.ru). Feast your eyes on the 52 smalto mosaics and the iconostasis, with its malachite and lapis lazuli columns. If it’s a clear day, climb the 300 steps to the dome’s observation deck for great city vistas. By now it should be about 5 p.m., so check into the Eliseev Palace—a 29-room hotel that is the former Eliseev mansion [Fig. 11]—yes, the same family whose gourmet food store you visited in Moscow (59 Moika Embankment; 7-812-324-9911; taleon.ru; for rates, see “The Basics,” page 100). A few years ago, masters from the Hermitage restored the mansion to its nineteenth-century opulence. No two rooms are the same, but rooms 410 and 411—the least expensive rooms with canal views—are the best value. Take a nice early-evening stroll up Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main boulevard, and turn left at the first canal (Griboedova). Since you don’t need a guide for the Byzantine-style Church on Spilled Blood, stop by now (eng .cathedral.ru). Built on the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated, it is covered inside and out with mosaics of precious and semi-precious stones. Then stroll down the Moika Canal to the Kempinski Hotel Moika 22, just off Palace Square, for drinks or Continental cuisine in its modern glass-walled bar and restaurant on

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The Navigator: St. Petersburg

t. petersburg is more SMoscow of a walking city than is. Taking the metro

here would mean missing great above­ground sights. As in Moscow, you’ll likely be walking at least six miles a day. Should you crumble— and don’t feel bad if you do; Napoleon crumbled here too—your guide can hail a cab or a public van. When heading to the palaces outside town, it’s well worth splurging on a car and driver.

the roof (22 Moika Embankment; 7-812-335-9111; entrées, $30–$45).

Day 6 (Tuesday): The Hermitage and the Yusupov Palace

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hen Catherine the Great bought 225 paintings by Western European masters in 1764, she built a private museum in her home, the Winter Palace. Five years later she had collected 2,500 paintings. She named her expanding museum the Hermitage—or “Place of Solitude”—because it was for her and her alone (Palace Sq.; 7-812-710-9079; hermitagemuseum .org). If she could see the hordes in there now, she’d be appalled. The former residence of the world’s wealthiest royal family is now the world’s largest museum, with three million works of art—so many that only a fifth of the collection can be displayed at one time. The Winter Palace alone—one of the museum’s five buildings—has 1,057 rooms. Finding the most interesting rooms on your own would take at least a day (especially since the museum does not open until 10:30 a.m. and certain rooms close as early as 4:45 p.m.). With a guide and a pair of sneakers, however, you can do it in three to four hours. Seek out the “Hidden Treasures Revealed” collection: 87 French Impressionist paintings that the Soviet army stole from Germany in 1945 and that the Hermitage hid in storage for 50 years (they were thought to be lost until Russia ad-

TheTip Many Russian stores don’t accept AmEx, so be sure to bring a Visa or MasterCard. Carry credit cards and cash under your clothing—say, in a neck pouch— rather than in a fanny pack.

C o n dE ´ n a s t T r av e l e r / c n t r a v e l e r. c o m

Map by Joyce Pendola

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Iconic itineraries R u s s i a : M o s c o w a n d S t . Pe t e r s b u r g mitted to possessing them). Worth finding, too, are the malachite room, the throne hall, the ballroom, Alexander II’s gold study, and the Small Hermitage with the giant gold Peacock Clock (ask your guide to deliver you there when the clock chimes so you can see the peacock fan its tail, the rooster turn its head, etc.). Get a load of the exact replica of Raphael’s loggia at the Vatican, which Catherine the Great, considering herself a pope of sorts, ordered reproduced. And don’t miss the Treasure Gallery, which contains hundreds of reminders of the czars’ over-the-top lifestyle— from Anna Ioannovna’s 48-piece gold toilet set to Catherine the Great’s umpteen diamond-encrusted [Fig. 13] snuff boxes. It also contains Peter the Great’s collection At Catherine Palace, don’t miss two photos of ancient Scythian gold: Look for the 7,000-year-old inside the first hall. earrings carved in such infinitesimal detail that they They show the interior in 1940 and again in must be viewed through a magnifying glass. Fabergé 1945, after the Nazis himself, when he was court goldsmith of the imperial had destroyed it. Hermitage, tried to reproduce them and failed. Think you’ve gotten a feel for the Russian empire’s unimaginable wealth? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. After lunch at the museum’s café (7-812-710-9079; entrées, $10– $20), walk 30 minutes to the Yusupov Palace—the best place to immerse yourself in the ostentatious and secretive world of the last czar, Nicholas, and his wife, Alexandra (94 Moika Embankment; 7-812-314-8893; yusupov-palace.ru). The Yusupovs, one of Russia’s wealthiest families, lived in the palace until they fled in 1917. Royals used to come there to see Rachmaninoff play and Pavlova dance in the palace theater. Only with the right guide can you get into the Buffet Room—reserved solely for the use of the royal family—to see the secret staircase that grand dukes used [Fig. 12] Only a guide can get you to sneak backstage and meet the prima ballerina, and into into the basement room the basement room [Fig. 12] where Felix Yusupov murin the Yusupov Palace dered Alexandra’s mystical adviser, Rasputin. The palwhere Rasputin was ace is filled with visual trickery—faux tapestries, poisoned and then shot papier-mâché chandeliers, trompe l’oeil ceilings. by Felix Yusupov. As is so often the case in Russia, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s fabricated. Get back to the hotel at around 5:30 p.m. to dress for the Mariinsky Ballet; curtain is usually at 7 p.m. (1 Theatre Sq.; 7-812-326-4141; mariinsky.ru; best tickets, $150– $350). Known as the Imperial Ballet under the czars and then as the Kirov until the fall of communism, the Mariin-

Moscow’s so-called KGB Museum, A PRIVATE CLUB FOR FORMER KGB AGENTS, is currently off-limits, but check before you go: Should it reopen, its James Bond–style spy gadgetry is a must-see 98

sky staged the original productions of The Nutcracker, Don Quixote, and Sleeping Beauty and has trained many of the greatest dancers of all time, including Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, George Balanchine, Rudolf Nureyev, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. After the ballet, order chicken Kiev or a bowl of borscht at the Mariinsky’s Backstage restaurant, next door. It’s filled with ballet memorabilia (18/10 Teatralnaya Sq.; 7-812-327-0684; entrées, $15–$28).

Day 7 (Wednesday): Tsarskoe Selo and Pavlovsk

O

f all the imperial retreats near St. Petersburg, arguably the most important is Catherine Palace [Fig. 13], built not by Catherine the Great but by Peter the Great’s second wife, Catherine I, a low-born laundress turned spendthrift. The czars who summered there had a thing for gilded mirrors and floral silk upholstery and clearly believed that more is more (eng.czar .ru). When the Nazis invaded, the splendiferous 56-room residence was turned into a soldiers’ barracks. Upon leaving, the army stole everything—even the fabled Amber Room’s priceless amber wall panels. (Now you know why Russia took revenge against Germany by stealing those ancient Trojan treasures you saw in Moscow and the French Impressionist paintings you saw at the Hermitage.) The only thing the Nazis didn’t take was the antique furniture, which they used as firewood. When they fled, they burned down the palace, but it has been painstakingly reproduced. Try to get through it by 11 a.m. because there is much to see on the grounds, such as the boarding school where the ruling elite studied, including Russia’s most beloved writer, Alexander Pushkin; the workshops where the master artisans who reproduced the Amber Room ply their craft (an advance appointment is necessary); and the Art Shop [Fig. 14], which sells jewelry and chess sets made by the artisans. After lunch in nearby Pavlovsk at colorful Podvorye [Fig. 15], stop by Pavlovsk Palace, the late-eighteenthcentury summer home of Catherine the Great’s son Paul I (alexanderpalace.org/pavlovsk). The neoclassical architecture and free-form English-style gardens make for an understated counterpoint to the Baroque grandiosity and manicured Frenchstyle gardens of Catherine Palace. Or, if you’ve got palace fatigue, head back to town to visit the Hermitage’s fascinating and high-tech storage facility, a 25-minute drive from the museum (an advance appointment is necessary for the tour, which is given by the curator). The storerooms contain the four-fifths of the Hermitage’s possessions that can’t fit into the museum, including imperial carriages (such as Nicholas II’s coronation carriage, seen on Fabergé’s famous imperial Easter egg); furniture from the Romanov palaces; and a silk tent given to Cathe-

[Fig. 14] Outside Catherine Palace is a shop selling amber wares made by the artisans who reproduced the Palace’s Amber Room.

[Fig. 15] It’s rare to see traditional wooden architecture such as that of the restaurant Podvorye. Order the borscht with beef and the mushrooms with cream sauce.

C o n dE ´ n a s t T r av e l e r / c n t r a v e l e r. c o m


Iconic itineraries R u s s i a : M o s c o w a n d S t . Pe t e r s b u r g rine the Great by the Ottoman sultan in 1770 and left in a box for 230 years. It was recently opened and is so perfectly preserved that it looks like it was made yesterday. Have your guide and driver drop you off at a canal dock so you can enjoy an early-evening boat ride (skip the larger boats that sail only on the river). Ask the captain to deposit you near the Eliseev Palace. For dinner, consider one of three user-friendly restaurants that are very popular among locals: Palkin, for elegant Russian and Continental cuisine and classical music (47 Nevsky Prospekt; 7-812-703-5371; entrées, $25–$60); 1913 Restaurant, for a more low-key Russian meal (13/2 Voznesensky; 7-812-315-5148; entrées, $10–$30), or Erivan, for Armenian cuisine and superb cognac (51 Fontanka Embankment; 7-812-703-3820; entrées, $20–$35).

Day 8 (Thursday): Footloose in St. Petersburg

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[Fig. 16]

For great deals on exquisite Russian porcelain, go to the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory, exclusive supplier to the czars since 1744.

ow that you’ve seen the essentials, your final day should be tailored to your specific interests. Are you a ballet fan? Exeter International can arrange a backstage tour of the Mariinsky; you can see the sets and costumes, and if you go in the afternoon, you might catch the dancers and musicians rehearsing for that evening’s performance ($400 for up to ten people). Are you a ship buff? Visit the Aurora battleship, which fired the blank shot that started the Revolution, paving the way for a new Soviet order (Petrovskaia Naberezhnaia Embankment). Haven’t done enough shopping yet? Head to the store at the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory [Fig. 16] for big discounts on the porcelain of this exclusive supplier to the czars (151 Obukhovsky Oborony Prospekt; 560-8300; hermitage museum.org). Or, if you’re a palace junkie, consider Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer estate on the Baltic Sea, famous for its vast gardens and 250 fountains (peter

The Basics Hotels: Moscow has bypassed Tokyo as the world’s most expensive city. A double at the upcoming Ritz-Carlton will cost a whopping $874 per night. By comparison, the Royal Meridien Hotel National seems almost reasonable at $491, including breakfast (the Kremlinview studio I recommend is $689 with breakfast). So does St. Petersburg’s Eliseev Palace [Fig. 11], part of a private club for high rollers where the rooms have onyxand-Iranian-marble bathrooms (doubles, $689). Rates quoted are for late April and early May and include tax. For budget hotels, go to cntraveler.com/iconictrips.

Museum and Monument Hours: These are relatively short (often, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.). Ticket booth hours are even shorter—they usually close an hour before the site does. Hours are changeable—the Kremlin, for instance, may soon be switching its day off from Thursday to Tuesday—and confusing: The Armory must be visited in one of four daily shifts: from 10 to 11:30, 12:30 to 2, 2:30 to 4, or 4:30 to 6. Worse, things close often and without notice. As one example, even though I went through the two biggest museums of Russian art, I never saw a single twentieth-century painting: The State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg closed its modern-art rooms early, and the

hof.org). Take the $20 hydrofoil there so you can arrive by water, as the czars did; then eat lunch on the grounds at The Orangerie’s delicious and expeditious buffet, and don’t miss the trick fountains that may hit you with a surprise stream of water. Before heading back to town in your private car, check out the Chinese Pavilion at Oranienbaum—the only summer palace not destroyed by the Nazis. (The hydrofoil, the fountains, The Orangerie, and Oranienbaum are closed until mid-May at the earliest.) Back in town, stop by Tikhvin Cemetery (which closes at 5 p.m.) to see the elaborate gravestones of artists and composers such as Dostoyevsky, Tchaikov­ sky, and Rimsky-Korsakov (Alexander Nevsky Sq.). If Shostakovich Philharmonic Hall has reopened in time for your trip, celebrate your final night in Russia with a concert there (2 Mikhailovskaya; philharmonia.spb.ru; best seats, $125–$175) and dinner across the street at the Grand Hotel Europe’s Caviar Bar (1/7 Mikhailovskaya; 7-812-329-6000; grand-hotel-europe.com; entrées, $46–$54). Given the U.S. ban on beluga imports and the consequent astronomical prices in the States, you can rationalize it as a savings rather than a splurge [Fig. 17].

[Fig. 17] For caviar, stop by the Eliseev store in Moscow (14 Tverskaya) or St. Petersburg (56 Nevsky Prospekt). Note: It’s illegal to bring beluga into the United States.

Most five-star hotel rates include an international BREAKFAST BUFFET SO LAVISH THAT IT’S EASILY A $50-PER-PERSON VALUE and so filling that you may not need lunch Since you’ll likely be flying home via Frankfurt, Paris, or, if you take the Delta nonstop, Moscow, you will probably be on an early-morning flight out of St. Petersburg. The drive to the airport at that hour takes about 30 minutes, so have a car pick you up about two and a half hours before your departure time.  Tretyakov’s were off-limits because the guards were home sick. Safety: I felt perfectly safe in the metro and walking alone at night. Of course, I stayed on well-lit, trafficked streets, carried a photocopy of my passport and Russian visa (in case I was stopped), and kept my money in a neck pouch under my clothing. As for the water and the food, you can drink tap water in the deluxe hotels, and your guide can point you toward plenty of eateries where the raw vegetables, peeled fruit, and ice are safe.

How to Book Contact Greg Tepper at Exeter International (800-633-1008; greg

@exeterinternational.com). But first: Go to cntraveler.com/iconic trips for crucial advice on how to get the most out of working with a travel specialist. The cost of the tour described here, for the time frame suggested (late April–early May), is $5,650 per person, double occupancy. This includes four nights in a Kremlin-view studio at the National, four nights in a standard double at the Eliseev Palace, taxes and breakfast, museum and sightseeing fees, a guide for seven days, a car and driver for two days, and cars to and from airports. The tour price does not include airfare from the United States, Moscow–St. Petersburg airfare (about $100), theater tickets, and visa fees.

The Adventure Continues Online You’re not done yet! Go to cntraveler

.com/iconictrips for more tips and explanations (including Wendy’s recommended budget hotels and why she suggests skipping the Golden Ring), as well as a slide show, a forum, and this itinerary in an easy-to-print PDF.

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C o n dE ´ n a s t T r av e l e r / c n t r a v e l e r. c o m

March 2007 - Condé Nast Traveller  

March 2007 - Condé Nast Traveller

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