Moscow in the Snow

The night train to Moscow was a great way to travel. We left at 11.45 and arrived at Moscow central station at 8.15am. After disembarking and breakfast nearby, we set off on a bit of a drive around Moscow before stopping off at the Red Square. We were very lucky when we arrived, as the line to enter Lenin’s tomb was very short so we got to walk through and see his embalmed body. It was a pretty spooky experience as he looks like a wax figure and everywhere you turn and look there are Russian guards eyeballing you, unflinching and not blinking. At the red square we also spent some time checking out the famous St Basils cathedral and taking pictures. 

The red square gets its name, not from the red walls of the Kremlin running down one side, but the fact that in Russia, red means beautiful. I can understand this given the beautiful and imposing buildings which surround it. 

After the red square and lunch, we went on a tour of the metro on our way back to our hotel. The metro stations in Moscow are beautiful, with marble, guilder cold, frescos and mosaics. It is also impeccably clean with giant, deep escalators. The engineering of the metro was actually carried out by London Undergriund engineers who were specially recruited. A number were even arrested as spies by the secret police as they gained a in depth knowledge of Moscows layout as a result of the work. Luckily they were deported after a mock trial. 

After a quick nap we headed out again for dinner in a restaurant with giant paintings of overweight men on the wall. Dinner was accompanied by vodka and Russian Champagne, which may or may not have been related to the Snow Ball fight we had later outside the Kremlin…

The morning after our snowball fight we made it inside the Kremlin itself. There is a road which runs through the Kremlin, lined with guards. You are not allowed to cross the centre line if this road as the other side is the presidential offices. Where you are allowed is the old churches/cathedrals. We visited these which were very beautiful, as well as walking through the grounds to check out Putin’s helicopter pad. After this we visited the biggest Russian Orthodox Church which is incredible beautiful and ornate. After this it was farewell to our tour buddies that night before heading to Berlin!

The Moscow Kremlin including Palace and Orthodox Churches

Enroute to Lenin’s Tomb

St Basils in the red square

Moscow fashion at its best. Just kidding, they all wore fur.

Red Square Christmas markets

State Historial Museum

Moscow Metro

Moscow Metro

Moscow Metro

Naked man mural. 

Snowball fights outside the Kremlin

Our Hotel

Grey Gouse Vodka

Entering the Kremlin

Communist Congress

Presidential offices, formerly the Tsar Palace. 

Useless Kremlin Canon. Too big to fire or put on the wall of the fortresss

Lazy eye and Kremlin Church

The wall of the Kremlin, looking down to Putins helipad

Kremlin grounds

Snow!

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Moscow Smog


Typical Stalinist Soviet building

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St Petersburg and Russian Impressions

I have to start this blog post with an upfront confession. When I decided to book my trip to Russia, I didn’t actually think too much about what it would be like. In my head, I had this preconceived idea of a more modern Vietnam, perhaps crossed with a bit of East Berlin, with remaining ‘communist’ influence everywhere. Between that and the constant bad press Russia receives, I couldn’t have been more surprised and delighted by the reality.

On arrival at St Petersburg, I have to say we were somewhat amused by the customs officers. There were no big scary men with guns as I anticipated, however there was a short customs man stomping about in an absolutely giant hat, and another customs lady strutting around in high heals and a short skirt while we waitress to clear passport control. The pair really did look quite ridiculous. 

For our trip we decided on a tour, and we met our guide on our first night in St Petersburg. Tanya was our guide and she was awesome. So fun and full of personality, as well as pride for her country, and an open mind in terms of our questions about life in Russia. One question we asked, was is Putin popular, and what do you think of what happened in Crimea. When Putin was elected for the first time in 2000, he was an unknown, having been put forward by Boris Yeltsin. After two terms and 8 years in office he was unable to continue as president, however the law conveniently changed so that now he is 4 years into a 6 year term. Supposedly, Putin is admired by many Russians for returning Russian self confidence and self respect following the collapse of the Soviet Union and recovery. In 2012 when he was elected again, Putin had only 55% support. After Sochi, 65%, and then after Crimea, 85%! Reclaiming Criemea, as the Russians see it, is historical justice for Russian territory which was lost after the collapse of the USSR. Hearing the Russian side, coupled with the western media view, I can see why it happened although I of course can’t agree with the how. So long story short, yes Putin is very popular.

Nevsky Prospoct is the main boulevard in St Petersburg and the heart of the old city centre. This street and the surrounds were our location for our first nights dinner and are absolutely beautiful! The city is full of gorgeous classical Russian Architecture which remains from the time of the Tsars, having survived the various wars as well as the communist era and it has all been refurbished since the fall of the Soviet Union. The white on pastel of these buildings really is stunning when coupled with all the fantastic New Years Eve lights. 

Our first full day we visited the Winter Palace / Hermitage museum in St Petersburg as well as the Church of our Saviour on Blood and a drive around the city to take in the key sites. As it was also Christmas Day we had a big dinner with everyone, enjoying tradition Russian food and several Vodkas. 

Our second day we visited one of the Summer residences of the Tsars in Pushkin, near St Petersburg. After the October revolution, the Bolsheviks and communists opted to keep all the palaces open in order for the ordinary Russian people to see the way the Tsar’s and emperors were living, to show them why a revolution was necessary. Catherine’s palace was very beautiful, and is nestled amoungst a normal Russian town which was interested get to see. After the palace we had traditional Russian food fork lunch including Borsh and Stroganoff, all of which was delicious. Our next stop was Peter and Paul Fortress, The birthplace of the city of St Petersburg. After a Loooooooong day we enjoyed a Russian folk show including proper Russian dancing before heading to catch our sleeper train to Moscow. The sleeper train was amazing and and comfortable with cabins with bunks of 4. 

Overall, St Petersburg was a beautiful city and if the opportunity came up again to visit, I would definitely take it and would encourage everyone else to do the same. It is so clean and orderly and we felt incredibly safe the whole time we were there.

Nevsky Prospect New Years Eve lights

Russian Classical Architecture

New friends at the Church of Our Saviour on Blood

Political Russian Dolls. Putin, Yeltsin, Khrushchev, Stalin, Lenin.

The Winter Palace, now the Hermitage Museum

Palace Square

Outside the Winter Palace

The Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood by day

Russian Orthodox Cathedral

Frozen Canal

Frozen River and the Winter Palace 

Rubbles! 

Pre-WWI ship

Vodka!

Summer residence

So many mirrors!

Outside Catherine Palace

Catherine Palace

Typical Russian Housing in Pushkin

Church within Peter and Paul fortress 


Sleeper train to Moscow!!

Christmas Markets in Cologne

December in Europe means Christmas markets and festivities galore, so of course I had to plan a trip a trip to visit some real and authentic Christmas markets in Germany. I met Rhi at the cologne train station, after a late night flight from Düsseldorf and a quick train ride. Even late at night cologne was beautiful. 

Saturday morning dawned bright and cold as we headed off to our walking tour. On our walking tour we learnt much about cologne and it’s history. This included the rule of the romans, all the way through to WWII and its impacts to present day. 

After the walking tour, we set to work exploring the Christmas markets, enjoying the gluhwien, delicious food and more gluhwien. We even went ice skating! Sunday was much the same, and included a visit to the chocolate factory.

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne

The Cathedarl

Stain glass windows

Gluhwien!

I found Matty!

Ice Skating!

More Gluhwien!

How we felt after the gluhwien

Lights!

Sunny last day in Cologne


Winter spritz  while waiting for my flight home

Finland

Right, got to start this blog post with a photo credit. Thanks so much my new Danish friend, Donatas Poteliunas, for the incredible photos of the Northern Lights. What would our hunting party have done without you? 

Finland! Land of saunas, northern lights and arctic life. We arrived in Helsinki after 3pm, and were welcomed to darkness and 2 degree temperatures. After making our way to our hostel, we wandered the streets, enjoying the cold and Christmas lights and displays in the main shopping street. After admiring beautiful trees and churches, we found ourselves a Ferris wheel and went for a ride. This was underwhelming, however was a nice Segway into drinks and nibbles at a lovely little wine bar, followed by tradition Finnish dinner at the Finnish version of Lonestar. 

Friday we wandered down to the get the ferry to the Sea Fortress of Suomenlinna to explore. It was a freezing day but sunny, with some light snow flurries at times. The fort was a pretty impressive structure, built under Swedish and Russian rule in Finland and still standing today with an impressive outlook into the Gulf of Finland. After the fort we ferried back to the mainland to explore a circular stone church with copper dome roof. Although very different, it was quite a stunning church. In the afternoon we explored the Hipster neighbourhood complete with coffee at a Hipster café. That night, we flew to Rovaniemi for the most important part of the trip. Fun in the arctic snow and northern lights hunting. Our first day in Rovaniemi we thoroughly enjoyed a day of snowmobiling on fresh snow in the arctic circle, complete with snow showers. The area was incredibly beautiful and like a postcard with the birch trees covered in snow. On the trip we stopped off at a reindeer farm and went for a sleigh ride, as well as a husky farm and husky ride! On our trip, some kid even managed to fall out of the children’s sleigh being towed by the guide, sending dads running. After the dramas abated and we all made it back in one piece. 

To finish the day we visited Santa at Santa’s village before sampling reindeer and local salmon and sausages for dinner. I have to say, the reindeer was quite delicious. On the way home from dinner, there may or may not have been a snow fight and some snow angels. The best thing about snow that far north is it is dry and puffy, and doesn’t stick or make you wet, it really is great. 

Sunday, our second day of arctic fun, was quieter and low key. We went to the museum and learnt all about the history of people living in the arctic, the arctic way of life and the impacts of global warming. After burgers for lunch and a nap, it was time to get picked up for our Northern Lights snowmobile trip!

Once we were all wrapped up on our special thermal clothes and boots, we were off into the -10 degree night. It was quite windy so I think the wind chill made it even colder, maybe -15 or more. Despite wearing 2 sets of ice breaker merino thermals, my fleece, specialist thermal suit plus extra gloves, neck baiter, beanie etc. I was still freezing, or should I say below freezing? After a half hour on the snow mobile, my visor was up as I thought I saw something in the sky. Sure enough, a faint white was rippling across the sky, the northern Lights! A little while later we pulled up in a clearing and climbed off the snowmobiles to enjoy the white and green ripples of the northern lights. Although we only saw simple colours, there really were quite amazing. Luckily, Donatas on our tour had a camera and the skills to capture the Aurora Borealis, something me and my iPhone were not capable of.  

When our group had all enjoyed and photographed the northern lights for a while, we were back on the snowmobiles and made our way to where we would light out fire and eat sausages and drink warm juice. This was very much needed at this point as I was absolutely freezing cold by now. Around the fire we heard the legends of the lights, involving a Firefox running from hunters. After that, we headed back to the clearing for a bit and then headed on home. 

Our last morning in Finland was a slow and sleepy one, followed by a late breakfast and coffee out in town before we went to the airport. The day was uneventful with the exception of sprinting through Helsinki airport to catch our connecting flight, only to find we were getting on the same plane!

Believe it or not, this is Helsinki Cathedal

Helsinki Christmas lights

Being Spanish in Finland, whoops!

Freezing Helsinki mornings

The church on Soumenlinna

Soumenlinna. It might look like evening light but it was actually late morning and it looked like this all day

Looking out to the gulf on Finland.

Cannon

Cold selfies

Looking back to the wharf

At the wharf

Helsinki Cathedral by day

Ready for snowmobiling

Reindeer farm

San cute in our snow outfits

Husky ride


That way to London, no NZ on this sign

At the edge of the arctic circle


Meeting Santa since I’ve been such a good girl

Sampling the local brew

Traditional sausages and local salmon

Snow angel!

Arctic beauty from the museum

Nighttime snowmobile rides


Super happy and freezing all at once