TRAVEL: winter wonderland in Russia
Alicia Pyke visits Moscow and Saint Petersburg in December for an unforgettable white Christmas.
Having my photo taken with Santa is a tradition I’d long outgrown but then, I’d never expected to meet the jolly man in Moscow. “Privet, Santa,” I wave, delighted when he beckons me over. “Who’s Santa?” he jokes. “I’m Father Frost.” It’s a small difference, but embracing the Russian way of doing things is essential to celebrating a white Christmas here.
It’s a few days before the 25th and we’re at a European-style Christmas market alongside a Moscow boulevard full of speeding cars and sirens. Getting a feel for the city means following the crowds to Red Square. Here we find an outdoor ice-skating rink and stalls selling mulled wine. Between the twinkling lights of the GUM department store and the psychedelic domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral, it’s like finding ourselves in the centre of a Christmas card with a twist: heady stuff, especially when we pass the Square’s more sombre
landmark of Lenin’s tomb near vast walls housing the Kremlin.
While Russians celebrate Christmas on January 7, according to the Eastern Orthodox calendar, there’s plenty of seasonal fun to be had from around December 20. And Russia’s rich winter food is perfect for Christmas. By all means, splurge on caviar at Moscow’s famous Café Pushkin, but copy the locals and call for a basket of piping hot pirozhki too. These fried pastries filled with meat, cheese and potatoes remind us to seek out the local comfort foods such as pelmeni (steamed ravioli served with sour cream), golubtsi (stuffed cabbage rolls) and that old favourite, beef stroganov.
Central hotels in Moscow can be prohibitively expensive so we stay at an Airbnb-listed apartment instead. To keep costs down, we also use the vast city’s underground system – challenging with all signs in
Cyrillic, but worth the effort to experience the surprising beauty of the Soviet-era stations designed as “people’s palaces” complete with marble columns, sculptures and murals. Mayakovskaya and Prospekt Mira are two of the most spectacular, but there are many hidden beauties so do look around when you head underground. It’s from one of these stations that we board the high-speed Sapsan train taking us 635km north to Saint Petersburg in less than four hours. The change of pace from gritty, bustling Moscow is immediately apparent: traffic is calmer and the official buildings are pretty rather than imposing.
Saint Petersburg’s architecture is so appealing that we wake up on a freezing Christmas morning deciding to spend the day walking among the neoclassical confections lining the banks of the Neva River. If you’re short on time, make a beeline for the buttercup-hued Admiralty complex – home to the Russian navy – and the mint-green Winter Palace, best known as the main building of the Hermitage Museum. If touring the Hermitage, give yourself as much time as possible. The world’s second largest museum after the Louvre, its daunting collection includes more than three million pieces.
A trip to the ballet is a must in Russia, and ours happens to be extra special:
we score tickets to Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker on Christmas night at the exquisite Mikhailovsky Theatre. The building dates back to 1833, when the Romanovs were still in charge. Continuing our theme of a royal Russian Christmas, we walk through the snowy streets for a late dinner at Tsar. Filled with antiques, the restaurant celebrates the decadence of pre-revolution Russia. Tsar’s menu is traditional, starting with Salad Olivier, a medley of pickles, peas, potatoes, eggs, meat and apples smothered in mayonnaise, followed by salmon fresh from the Gulf of Finland. Petits fours follow as we’re treated to an unexpected floor show when Father Frost arrives to lead a hearty Christmas singalong.
He’s also brought a troupe of cossack dancers and ballerinas who perform breathtaking Dirty Dancing-style “lifts” in the narrow spaces between tables. It’s shockingly good, and like many things in Russia, a little hard to believe until you relax, smile and realise this is just how things are done here.
The psychedelic domes of St Basil’s Cathedral. BELOW: Alicia meets Father Frost.
ABOVE: Prospekt Mira station in Moscow. The Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg (top) houses the Hermitage Museum (below).
FROM TOP: A view of Saint Petersburg; Pushkin Patisserie in Moscow; when in Russia, seeing a ballet is a must.